Tim Lang: Don't let the food barons put trade before health

It's time to name and shame the manufacturers who used tainted meat products
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It's been a good week for the food barons, but not necessarily a good week for food. The inquiry into foot and mouth disease is to be held in secret. Lord Haskins, chairman of Northern Foods, a major dairy and processed food supplier, is to be the Government's new rural policy fixer, charged with sorting out the rural blight left by foot and mouth disease. Sir Don Curry, former head of the Meat and Livestock Commission, is to head the Food and Farming Commission. Sir Peter Davis, head of Sainsbury's, is alongside.

Fine chaps all of them, but appointing a former Meat and Livestock Commission chairman to head the Food and Farming Commission is grossly insensitive. It has already raised suspicions that these bodies will find ways and statistics to defend the status quo. The meat industry has been associated with the worst UK food scandals in living memory – BSE and foot and mouth disease. Its commitment to the meat export trade has meant three million animals being slaughtered to try to win back the UK's status of being free of foot and mouth. It has cost £2.2bn so far, and rising. BSE has cost 100 lives and £4bn so far, with another couple of million animal deaths and incalculable loss of consumer confidence. It is hardly the best exemplar of moral authority on this matter.

When New Labour came to office, it promised that things would be different. In one respect, it is, although not in a way that Tony Blair could have foreseen. Three top scientists on the committee that is overseeing BSE went public last week about the food industry refusing to divulge which companies had used mechanically recovered meat (MRM). This sludge, that was used extensively without being declared on labels, is a possible vehicle for passing BSE to humans. For six years, since MRM was banned in 1995, the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC) had been asking companies for information. The committee reported to both the old agriculture ministry – now the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – and the Food Standards Agency. But why was it only when the scientists aired their complaints that the food agency launched an inquiry? This, remember, is the government that promised transparency. It's a pretty opaque variety.

If companies still refuse to say whether they did or did not use MRM, I believe that a spot of naming and shaming is required. Six years of delaying tactics – four of them under New Labour – is inexcusable.

Tony Blair's government was understandably naive about such matters when it took office in 1997. It was bloodied over GM, backing big business on a strategy to which consumers were opposed. Ministers thought that once the Food Standards Agency was created, the only dragon left to slay was the Common Agricultural Policy. By the 2001 election, they were sadder and wiser. Setting up an agency is one thing. Sorting out policies to guide it is quite another. When it comes to food safety, government cannot simply rely on setting up yet another body and hope for the best.

Today, the terms of reference for the Food and Farming Commission are all motherhood and apple pie. It is there "to advise the Government on how we can create a sustainable, competitive and diverse farming and food sector which contributes to a thriving and sustainable rural economy, advances environ- mental, economic, health and animal welfare goals, and is consistent with the Government's aims for CAP reform, enlargement of the EU and increased trade liberalisation". Object to that. Go on, I dare you. But can this be delivered? A confidential seminar I attended, opened by a minister just before the election, heard compelling evidence from the meat industry that higher welfare standards add costs. This is an incentive for supermarkets and processors to import food from lower-cost production regimes with more lax standards. Trade liberalisation already makes it economic to ship poultry from Thailand – crazy environmental economics with all those food miles. US beef farmers are salivating at the prospect. What price home-grown food?

The public is still worried about the health implications of mass-produced food, and rightly so. But that is only one part of the story. Current policy focuses on individual consumption. It downplays the health of the population as a whole and only changes to the entire food supply chain can make a difference here.

The Treasury is furious about forking out billions for BSE and foot and mouth, but it ignores the huge externalised health bill from cheap food and poor diet. That cost falls to the NHS, or the taxpayer in lost working days if we want to be Gradgrindish about it, in blighted lives and premature death if we take a broader view. Food poisoning was the rationale for the Food Standards Agency, but it is comparatively small fry: £1bn, compared to coronary heart disease (£3bn); diet-related cancers (unquantified); obesity (£500m to the NHS, plus £2bn to the wider economy, according to the National Audit Office); and diabetes (unquantified). Include the cost of breathing air polluted by the energy-guzzling transport of food up and down motorways and the bill would be greater still.

Europe's health and social affairs ministries, including the UK's, have already mapped out a vision for food policy, giving equal weight to safety, nutrition and sustainable food supply. This recognised that health should drive the food economy, not the other way round. What's efficient about a sick population? At home, however, other considerations and interests dominate.

This raises the key question of what farming and the countryside are for, and the choice is stark. Is the best we can hope for a land of wildlife and wilderness in a sea of farm intensification? Or should we aim, slowly, for sustainable farming practices everywhere? While other EU states are moving towards the latter, the UK wants an export-oriented food trade. The pat line on better-quality food is to "sell it on a label". Good niche marketing, maybe, but it excludes the poor, who don't have the time or the money to secure the better-quality produce. Government has to set the framework. EU agriculture ministers are discussing a target of 20 per cent of land to be farmed organically by 2010. France is already aiming for 5 per cent by 2005, while Austria made just under 10 per cent by 2000. Mr Blair, why not aim to emulate at least the French? Without such a target, all your grand words are meaningless.

The question is not whether to reform the Common Agricultural Policy, but how. Alliances are needed to break down the hoary old pacts of self-interest. We could, for instance, follow Sweden, which intends to reduce energy use in food production by a factor of four by 2021. Here, that would threaten powerful trade interests. Hence, I presume, the appointment of big food barons to divert us from such a course.

An open-borders policy inevitably concentrates control and pits intensive farmers in different countries in environmentally ruinous competition. This scenario would mean Europe's food barons carving up food with the USA's food barons. If we want good-quality, healthy diets from sustainable sources, then the market has to be a secondary consideration, not the priority that Labour is making it. That's the choice: stark and unavoidable. Foot and mouth has shown up the ludicrous business of protecting animal exports, only for the same amount of meat to be imported from countries with far laxer controls.

Britain still lacks any clear mechanism for policy co-ordination and without that, the contradictions and loopholes will continue. If the Food and Farming Commission fails to recognise this, it won't have done its job properly.

So busy has New Labour been abandoning its past that it has forgotten useful bits of its own history. The Food and Farming Commission will arguably be the first major review of UK food and agriculture policy since Labour's 1947 Agriculture Act. It is the last half-century of industrialised food production that is now on trial. The framework put in place by Labour's Agriculture Act has delivered intensification of food production with disastrous results. More than 50 years on, it's time to think radically again.

Tim Lang is Professor of Food Policy at Thames Valley University.