BEEF CRISIS: Ashdown backs change to Maff

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The Independent Online
Opposition parties united yesterday to demand that responsibility for the safety of food be taken away from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Paddy Ashdown, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, wrote to John Major to warn that unless he took that step to restore public confidence in food in general and beef in particular, it "could result in the complete collapse of the British beef industry".

Mr Ashdown said the principle of separating responsibility for consumers and producers was well established in other departments in Britain and other countries - referring specifically to the US where the Food and Drug Administration looks after food safety.

Mr Ashdown urged Mr Major to take "whatever action is necessary" to convince consumers everything possible had been done to eradicate BSE.

He stated in his letter to the Prime Minister: "One of the steps which the Government could take to restore public confidence would be to announce as soon as possible your intention to take responsibility for food safety away from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food."

Gavin Strang, Labour's agriculture spokesman, said that a Labour government would set up an independent Food Standards Agency. The agency's purpose would be to protect the health of consumers and it would have "enormous powers", he told GMTV.

Dr Strang stressed the buck would ultimately stop with politicians: "At the end of the day it is ministers who have to accept responsibility for the safety of our food," he said.

But he rejected calls for Maff to be split between an agriculture and a food ministry. "People have got to know that when they go into the shops it is safe. That is the prime responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture and Food and always has been," he said.

Sir Richard Body, the Conservative MP and farmer, said he will urge Mr Major to abolish Maff forthwith and divide up its responsibilities elsewhere.

Mr Body believed Maff had an impossible task and that its duties should be divided between the Department of Health, the Department of the Environment and the Department of Trade and Industry.Sir Richard, MP for Holland with Boston, said: "Anything to do with health should be transferred to the Department of Health. It is quite wrong for an investigation of animal diseases and other matters of health that are the responsibility of Maff to remain where they are."

Downing Street said there were "no plans" to change Maff.