'Safe food' agency will put public health before farmers' profits

Britons will for the first time be given full details of unhealthy substances in the food they eat under plans to go before a Cabinet committee for approval this week, the Independent on Sunday has learned.

An independent agency will be given power to monitor and control the contents of manufactured foodstuffs such as biscuits, cakes and prepared meals, according to the proposals.

The plans, which have been fought through in the face of determined opposition from the food industry and Ministry of Agriculture officials, will, for the first time, put the interests of the public above those of farmers and the food industry - and consumer organisations say that they should mean that Britons can "stop worrying" when going shopping.

Under the proposals, due to be published next month in a White Paper, the agency will be empowered to give the public "authoritative factual information" on what is in its food, from unhealthy ingredients to pesticide residues. It will also be able to propose new laws, including requiring the food industry to provide full and comprehensible lists of ingredients and controlling manufacturers' claims that their products are low in fat or high in fibre.

Farmers and the food industry had sought to restrict the remit of the agency to the com- paritively minor issue of food poisoning. At first, the Ministry of Agriculture took their side, but it changed its mind after receiving specific instructions from the Cabinet committee overseeing the White Paper, chaired by Dr David Clark, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

But a ministerial row has broken out over a refusal by Dr Jack Cunningham, the Agriculture Minister, to allow the new watchdog to further extend its powers to oversee standards on farms - a vital measure if a future BSE-style crisis is to be avoided. Mr Cunningham's resistance is strongly supported by farmers, but is being contested both by health ministers and within his own department.