Food lobby jeopardises drive for healthy eating

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A vicious battle is being fought over the Food Standards Agency, an independent body that could yet become the toughest consumer watchdog in Europe.

The powerful food industry lobby, backed by giants like Cadbury Schweppes and Tate & Lyle, is locked in combat with food scientists and the Consumers' Association over plans to give the new agency power to develop policy and legislation on the nutritional quality of diet.

The White Paper setting up the agency, due to be published shortly, has been delayed after Peter Mandelson, minister without portfolio, wrote to ministers questioning the extent of the agency's powers over nutrition. That is precisely the objection raised by food manufacturers who fear that the agency could, for instance, press for big reductions in the amount of sugar and salt in food.

A No 10 spokesman said last night: "There is no compromise on putting the consumer first. What there must be is clarity."

Food scientists believe that bad diet is the single most important health problem facing the country. It is estimated that more than a quarter of all cancers are caused by poor diet, and that heart disease is a massive diet-related problem - even without the effect of smoking. The need for the Food Standards Agency to tackle diet and nutrition was a key proposal put to the Prime Minister by Professor Philip James, an eminent food scientist. Tony Blair asked the professor for draft proposals when in Opposition; these were delivered within days of Labour's election in May.

The food industry has since been working to water down the professor's proposals for nutrition - which would hit profits. But in spite of the lobbying - backed by donations to the Labour Party, including cash from Tate & Lyle - ministers stood firm, and a draft of the White Paper was ready for Cabinet committee endorsement last month.

At that point, however, two things happened. No 10 circulated a protest letter from Sir Dominic Cadbury, of Cadbury Schweppes, and Mr Mandelson sent a letter to colleagues in the Department of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture.

In spite of the fact that Mr Mandelson had been a member of the ministerial committee that had helped draft the White Paper, he belatedly questioned the role of nutrition in the remit of the agency - and brought all proceedings to a grinding halt.

Ministers across Whitehall have told The Independent that Mr Mandelson is, in fact, the minister for all portfolios - he "pokes his nose", "sticks his oar", and "chucks his spanner" into anything and everything. Because he has Mr Blair's ear, it is also feared he speaks for the Prime Minister.

Ministers were particularly struck by the similarity between Mr Mandelson's argument and that of the food manufacturers; that nutrition would be a diversion from the agency's central role of ensuring food safety from plough to plate.

Whitehall panic was illustrated when Tessa Jowell, the public health minister, made a London speech earlier this month and her circulated text mistakenly included a civil service note that warned: "In view of the correspondence with No 10 and Mr Mandelson, M(PH) [the minister for public health] may wish to be circumspect in general references to nutrition."

Alarms bells were already ringing throughout Whitehall that the White Paper had been "got at", and on 6 November Sheila McKechnie, head of the Consumers' Association, wrote to Mr Blair in an attempt to reinforce his commitment to Professor James. She told The Independent yesterday: "Because of my concern that the food manufacturers had referred their case direct to Downing Street, I wrote to the Prime Minister setting out the Consumers' Association arguments as to why nutrition should be included in the FSA remit. There is no doubt that if the FSA does not deal with nutrition, it will not have the confidence of consumers."

A source close to Mr Mandelson yesterday denied that he had come under any pressure from the food industry, and said that the minister had "absolutely no knowledge whatsoever" of the industry's views.

He then added a remark that will reinforce the fears of Professor James's allies and supporters, saying: "However, it wouldn't actually take a representation from anyone in the industry to see how the proposals could be improved ... it isn't a matter of watering it down; it's a matter, if anything, of strengthening the safety remit of the agency." That is precisely what the food industry has been arguing.