Barrage of flak for new food-safety proposal

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The Government's planned new Food Safety Council will fail to rebuild public confidence following the devastating food scares of recent years, opposition leaders and consumer groups said yesterday.

The agriculture minister, Douglas Hogg, and Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health, announced that the council would be independent of government and led by an eminent and expert chairman - yet to be appointed. But critics said this set-up would not deal with a fundamental conflict within the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food - that it is responsible for promoting the interests of farmers and the food industry while protecting consumers at the same time.

Consumer bodies called for an independent food safety agency with executive powers to enforce and regulate the industry. But while Labour said the proposed council was inferior to the Food Standards Agency it is planning, this too would be an advisory rather than an executive organisation.

Mr Hogg said the council would have about 20 members, and produce an annual report. Its advice, which will be made public, will cover food safety, quality, labelling and authenticity. The chairman "will be free to speak in public whenever he wishes too'', said Mr Hogg, who conceded that the public did see his ministry as too closely associated with producers. ``We [in government] are deliberately creating a rod for our own back.''

The new council would be able to recommend particular research projects, but Mr Dorrell said it was unlikely to be allowed to commission research itself. It is being set up in the wake of scares over ``mad cow'' disease, salmonella-contaminated baby milk and the E. coli outbreak in Scotland which has claimed 18 lives. Gavin Strang, Labour's agriculture spokesman, said: "This is a total U-turn ... but the government proposal is inadequate. A food-safety adviser and a part-time council will command neither the resources nor the authority to tackle the problems."

The director of the Consumers' Association, Sheila McKechnie, said: "The powers of the new Food Safety Council are too limited. Its role appears to be chiefly advisory with its focus too narrow." She suggested the new council must be given the resources to conduct research and assess risks.

Ruth Evans, director of the National Consumer Council,described the new body as "a lost opportunity".

Suzanne Moore, page 19