Minister defends food agency retreat

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The Independent Online
The Government White Paper on the Food Standards Agency, the independent watchdog for safe and healthy eating, has been delayed until the New Year, the Prime Minister's office revealed yesterday. Anthony Bevins, Political Editor, looks at the Government's climbdown.

Whitehall yesterday moved onto the defensive in an attempt to damp down reaction to yesterday's exclusive report in The Independent, which disclosed that ministerial work on the agency had been halted by a letter from Peter Mandelson, Minister without Portfolio.

Mr Mandelson's intervention is said to have echoed strong lobbying from vested interests in the powerful food industry, who oppose the agency controlling questions of nutrition.

Scientists state that poor diet is a big contributor to cancer, heart disease and diabetes and the agency needs power to advise public and ministers on the nutritional quality of diet.

Denying any question of difficulty, a spokesman for the Prime Minister's office said he was not aware that a date had been set for publication of the White Paper, although the Ministry of Agriculture issued a press notice at the end of August saying that it was expected in the autumn.

Whitehall officials went further in recent discussion with the Transport and General Workers' Union, which has planned to issue a detailed report, Food Safety: an agenda for action, this week.

The union - which has 200,000 members working in the food industry - was told that as the White Paper was to be published this week it would be better if they brought forward their launch to last week, which they did at very short notice.

That report reiterated the advice of Professor Philip James, the food scientist who was commissioned by Tony Blair to make recommendations on the powers and scope of the agency. It said: "FSA's remit should cover every stage of the food chain, from plough to plate, including issues of nutrition."

There was no dispute over that question yesterday, and the No 10 spokesman said there was no question of any inter-departmental war. He insisted that what the Government wanted from the White Paper was clarity - which Jeff Rooker, Minister for Food Safety, duly delivered in an interview with BBC radio's World at One.

He said that while the agency would have "a substantial role in nutritional aspects", along with the Department of Health, it would not be telling people what to eat. "Its basic function," he added, "will be to ensure the safety of food production throughout the whole of the food chain".

That does not detract from the statement made by ministers to interest groups last month, when they said: "Ministers are convinced of the overwhelming arguments for FSA taking this major role in nutrition...

"Ministers expect to propose in the White Paper that FSA will be the principal source of advice on nutrition and of proposals for food policy in relation to nutrition; while health departments will continue to lead on public health policy and wider advice on lifestyle."