Cabinet concedes need for food safety supremo

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Ministers are to appoint a new food safety adviser in the wake of the BSE crisis and Scotland's recent E-coli epidemic. The name of the adviser will be revealed today in a joint statement from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) and the Department of Health.

The Government had previously claimed that no change in its machinery was needed despite criticism that Maff was hampered by a conflict of interest between food producers and consumers.

However, a cabinet committee was reported to have been set up in December to examine the issue, and has now apparently decided to make a significant concession.

Last night Labour's spokesman on food and agriculture, Gavin Strang, said it seemed that the Government might have been influenced by the party's own idea of setting up an independent agency to oversee the quality and safety of food. Labour wanted the body to be free from government and commercial influence so that it could examine scientific evidence from around the world. Education, both in schools and in the wider community, should be improved so that people understood the safe handling of food, he said.

The idea of a specialist in food science and hygiene to advise ministers is known to have been under consideration for some time.

The food safety chief will be independent, but answerable to ministers, and will head a new Food Safety Council made up of experts in the field. Opposition MPs have criticised the Government for being too close to the food industry at the expense of public health. The new measures are designed to address this criticism.

But even before the formal announcement was made, the move came under fire. Shadow agriculture minister, Gavin Strang, dismissed the idea of a food safety expert as inadequate.

"What we need is an independent food standards agency which would be a massive exercise in open government, independent of commercial interests, and it would be part of a drive to re-establish British food as among the safest and highest quality in the world," he said.

The adviser, who is expected to be paid up to pounds 100,000 a year in salary, will coordinate the work of existing committees and advise particularly on safety, quality and labelling.

The adviser's role will also encompass talking regularly to the Press and appearing on television or radio at short notice to reassure or guide members of the public on food safety matters.

The Government will emphasise that the public will in future receive its information from an independent neutral, rather than a government minister. The adviser will also be required to give an annual report to Parliament and appear before Commons select committees, it was reported in the Times.