Leading Article: Make it safe, but a menu means choice

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The Independent Online
In the risk society, the consumer's best friend is her common sense, bolstered by as much relevant information as package labels and restaurant menus can bear about the provenance and handling of the food we buy. No purchase will be entirely safe. Consumers can never be absolved from their responsibility to make up their own minds about cuts of meat, allergenic properties, carcinogens, fat or about the cleanliness and reliability of the cafes and restaurants they patronise. Government - now to take the form of a specialist Food Safety Agency - ought to be an enhancer of choice. Prohibition is easy - but unacceptable and probably unworkable. More difficult is to oversee the food chain in such a way as to allow informed choice to be made in kitchen and restaurant about what to eat and how.

During its nine months in office Labour has been charged with nannyism. The complaint was loudly articulated when Mr Cunningham banned beef on the bone. In fact that decision was justified - pending further elucidation of the link between BSE and analogous human disease. But the Government should look to this new agency as a means of dispelling its Cromwellian, interfering reputation: its task ought not to be the regulation of consumers but the enforcement of standards on the food producing and processing industries in order to support maximum freedom of choice.

The new agency has allies. Local authority environmental health officers do sterling work, often on tight budgets; they are the front-line troops in the struggle to keep restaurants up to scratch. It is up to the public to chivvy their local councillors to spend enough to keep this vital service going. Sainsbury and Tesco and the other big food retailers, themselves agents of change and choice in what we eat, exist in a highly competitive market; food safety is in their interest, provided consumers are alert and prepared to vote with their feet. The Food Safety Agency will work best as an impresario, with the public as its principal actors. Only if we all become more vigilant about our health, more prepared to monitor episodes of food poisoning and investigate their causes will standards rise. Take restaurant meals, in their increasing number such an impressive index of our increasing affluence. How often do consumers even ask to be allowed to inspect a restaurant's kitchens - the very prospect would call some cooks smartly to attention. Butchery need not be the invisible art it has become - when was the last time we peeped behind the plastic curtain at the supermarket?

In this perspective the exact nature of the agency as a public body is probably less important than its philosophy as a collaborator with the public in ensuring high standards of food preparation and presentation. In the risk society, we often show a dismaying tendency to try to slough off the management of risks on others, especially government and the courts. The Food Safety Agency cannot operate alone. How it is administered does of course matter. It would be have helped, yesterday, if the announcement of its birth had featured health secretary as prominently as agriculture minister. Jack Cunningham did not entirely explain how this agency will avoid the perils of departmentalism, able to present its own reports to ministers yes, but still dependent on the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for its annual budget and personnel.

That is important because the creation of the agency ought to be only a part of Labour's policy for food. A major element in that is doing less to achieve more. Like paying less in subsidies for the production of foodstuffs for which no market exists. This spring the British presidency of the European Union ought to be an occasion for loud and insistent criticism of the Common Agricultural Policy, that blight on the European landscape. Everyone knows the expansion of the EU is fatally compromised by failure to end the CAP; that the EU's budget is impossible as long as it exists. Britain should say that abroad.

At home, this Government should tell farmers the days of production management are over. Instead of worrying about agriculture as an industry - what, presumably, Maff exists to do - the Government should concern itself with the rural environment, in the broadest sense. There are cultures, human as well as plant and animal, which deserve protection. But the means is not blanket subsidies.

How farms are run ought to be less and less the object of state attention. The role of government - and the Food Safety Agency could be an effective instrument - is to erect a series of checkpoints and monitoring stations along the chain, insisting on the highest standards at every point. What, at the end of the process, the consumer chooses to do must be left as free as possible.