Traders in revolt on food `poll tax' on food

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THE LAUNCH of the Government's long-awaited independent food standards watchdog was overshadowed last night by a dispute over a pounds 90 "poll tax" to be levied on every food shop, cafe and restaurant.

Small business leaders protested that corner shops and fast food places, such as kebab bars, will have to pay the same flat fee as supermarket giants to fund the start-up costs of the Food Standards Agency.

In all more than 500,000 outlets will be affected but Frank Dobson, the Secretary of State for Health, dismissed the protests, saying: "Quite a few people who run kebab shops are going to require the services of the agency."

Nick Brown, the Minister of Agriculture, said the pounds 1.70 weekly tax was no more than the price of a sandwich. The main supermarket chains - Tesco, Sainsbury, Safeway and Asda - broadly welcomed the draft proposals, which are open to consultation.

But an intensive lobbying campaign was under way by the small businesses. The Association of Convenience Stores said that its members were already struggling to compete with the big chains and another drain on their profits could lead to some going under.

The tax will be coupled with the existing food premises licensing system, but it will be made a criminal offence for food outlets not to register with local authorities and licensing may be extended to butcher's shops. Newsagents, selling ready-wrapped food such as crisps, will be excluded from the charge. An estimated 25,000 outlets will escape the levy, including mobile shops, and village fetes.

Ministers are hoping the agency will help to restore consumer confidence in the Government's handling of food standards, after the scandals and scares during the Tory years over BSE, CJD, salmonella in eggs and e-coli in meat.

It will have a wide-ranging remit, from the farm to the high street, and will be seen as the fulfilment of Labour's election promise to introduce an independent body to oversee food standards.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will remain responsible for farm policy, but the agency will have power to act where it affects public health across the whole food chain, including animal feeding stuffs, which were the cause of the BSE outbreak. Mr Brown confirmed it will have a remit to cover the health risks raised by genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

"It will certainly consider the health issues associated with GMOs. It will make reports to Frank's department. If there are agriculture issues as with crops, it will send its report to my department as well," Mr Brown said.

The agency, which is to be based in London, will be free to publish its scientific findings. The Chief Medical Officer will report to the agency and the Department of Health, not the ministry. Liam Donaldson's report, which recommended keeping the ban on beef on the bone - exclusively revealed in The Independent - is being studied by Mr Brown and Mr Dobson but ministerial sources said they could not now override the findings.

The Health Secretary and the Minister of Agriculture appeared together as a public show of co-operation between the Department of Health and the ministry over the agency, after behind-the-scenes battles on the proposals.