Food chief appointed to rebuild public confidence

Professor Sir John Krebs is a scientist to his fingertips. His background is in the apparently arcane field of behavioural ecology - that is, how behaviour is the result of natural selection.

Professor Sir John Krebs is a scientist to his fingertips. His background is in the apparently arcane field of behavioural ecology - that is, how behaviour is the result of natural selection.

It might be a useful grounding in the task he faces as the chairman of the independent Food Standards Agency, set up by the Labour Government in reponse to the colapse in consumer confidence that followed the BSE crisis.

His role is to alter the behaviour of people inside and outside government, first by persuading those inside to view food safety as a consumer issue; and to persuade the customer that everything is being done to keep them safe. He also has to make food retailers and manufacturers obey the law, perhaps a mightier task.

Sir John, 55, was appointed to head the new agency in January. With a £96,000 annual salary, £130m first-year budget and a four-day week, Sir John says he intends to improve the "already high standards" of food safety, and "to make sure everyone can have confidence public health is being properly protected". The agency's researchers say people see the food industry as cynically pursuing profits and have a low opinion of politicians' competence and openness on food.

There were critics of his appointment: the Consumers' Association said the government should have appointed a "strong, credible, consumer chair", and Tim Lang, professor of food policy at Thames Valley University, called his appointment "bizarre''.

The former head of the National Environment Research Council (where his study of badgers led to a government cull to see whether the animals spread TB to cattle), will have been hard at work behind the scenes. As a fellow of Pembroke College at Oxford, he is known to be quietly stubborn, using sheer intellectual force to drive home his points and win arguments.

Yet the agency has begun to make a difference. For instance, it will introduce a national framework for measuring and enforcing food safety, after a survey it commissioned found nearly half of the 381,617 food outlets inspected had broken its rules in the past year.

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