The food industry appears to have a new best friend in Andrew Lansley. Last week, the Health Secretary promised to refrain from legislation outlawing excessively fatty, sugary and salty products in exchange for an agreement from the industry to fund the Government's healthy-eating campaign. And now Mr Lansley is preparing to abolish the industry's bête noire, the Food Standards Agency. This government's approach to Big Food has been one of zero stick and maximum carrot.
It is true that the FSA has not been a tremendous success since its foundation in 2000. But the watchdog's failures have come where ministers have failed to back it up in its various battles with the food industry. The FSA's regulatory remit will now be split between the Department of Health and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Civil servants in those two departments are likely to be even weaker than the FSA when it comes to curbing the excesses of the industry.
It is important to recall that the FSA was established because of the widespread perception that the government's close relations with the farming industry had compromised its ability to act independently in the BSE crisis. Such regulatory capture is likely to happen again. We recently witnessed the formidable lobbying power of the food companies when they managed to get the European Parliament to block the "traffic light" labelling system for processed products being implemented across the European Union. An estimated £830m was spent persuading MEPs to back a much weaker labelling system favoured by industry giants such as Nestle, Kraft and Danone.
The abolition of the FSA is being justified as a cost-cutting measure. But it is highly unlikely that abolishing the watchdog will save money over the longer-term. Rising public obesity rates, which a properly empowered FSA might have begun to reverse, will put a greater strain on the National Health Service, requiring greater expenditure down the line. This is likely to prove a classic false economy.
The Conservative Party has an unfortunate history of putting the narrow needs of businesses above the broader public interest. David Cameron and George Osborne made efforts before the general election to show that they were not beholden to their party's former friends in the City of London. But their capitulation to the food industry since taking office leaves us to conclude that, when vested interests apply pressure, Conservative ministers are still unable, or unwilling, to resist.