The production, processing, distribution, retail, packaging and labelling of food stuffs are governed by a mass of laws, regulations, codes of practice and guidance.
– The Food Standards Agency, Regulation and Legislation
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is a government agency in the United Kingdom (UK) that is responsible for ensuring the public’s safe consumption of foodstuffs. Founded on April 1, 2000, the FSA is headquartered in London, England, and maintains jurisdiction over the entire United Kingdom: England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
This article discusses the history, structure, and operational mechanisms of the FSA.
The impetus for the FSA’s creation was a 1997 report written by Philip James—a scientist, medical doctor, and then-professor at Cambridge University. Within his report, Dr. James cited the lack of confidence concerning food safety within the British populace. Specifically, he noted a “conflict of public and vested interests” that had contributed to an environment of secrecy. Dr. James attributed this perception as stemming from the intermingling of “inappropriate public health and consumer interests.”
Dr. James recommendation, then, was the establishment of a food-safety agency that was free from the reach of politicians and industry alike. Only then, James contested, could a public health agency devoted to food safety truly place the health and welfare of the people first. The Agency’s main directive was to provide recommendations based off two criteria: public benefit and scientific rationale.
In January of 1998, the FSA’s foundational document—known as a “Command Paper” by the UK government—was distributed to members of Parliament. The document specified important elements of the then-to-be Agency, including “The Agency’s Role in Food Safety.” Prime Minister Tony Blair provided the preface for the document, noting his intention “to do away with the old climate of secrecy and suspicion and replace it with modern, open arrangements which will deliver real improvement in (food safety) standards.” The United Kingdom officially recognized the FSA as a department of the government in 2001.
Because the agency is classified as a non-ministerial body, its operational oversight is beyond the reach of political interference. This is a structural arrangement that differentiates the FSA from many other nations’ public health organizations, which are often subject—at least to some degree—to political forces (e.g., The US Food and Drug Administration). As with many foundational tenets, this plan adhered to the recommendations set out by Dr. James in his report.
The FSA works with, and receives recommendations from, seven other agencies and public bodies. Among these groups are three advisory agencies, each specializing in the scientific research of various food-based areas of expertise. There are also two committees that specialize in research concerning the chemical constituency of foods (e.g., toxicity and mutagenicity of chemicals), one “General Science” committee, and one research body concentrating on the social science aspect of food safety.
A board of directors, ranging between eight to 12 members at any given time, oversees the agency. Members of the board are appointed primarily by the Secretary of State for Health. However, the Welsh Prime Minister and the Northern Ireland Health Minister each appoint one member.
Like many governmental food-safety organizations, the FSA functions as an enforcement and regulatory body; however, the organization also takes on numerous other responsibilities. With respect to enforcement, the FSA empowers local, trained food-safety officers to carry out most duties.
The Food Safety Act 1990 instills the FSA with the necessary “functions and powers” by which it can fulfill its duties. In the broadest sense, these duties are to “act in the consumer’s interest at any stage in the food production and supply chain.”
The FSA has a wide range of operational capabilities across several food-safety areas. Official UK documents list the following 14 subject areas for which the agency is responsible:
- Pathogens in Live Animals
- Animal Feed
- Pesticides & Veterinary Medicines
- Food Hygiene
- Meat & Milk Hygiene
- Foodborne Illness
- Novel Foods & Processes
- Food Additives
- Chemical Contaminants
- Radiological Safety
- Food Intolerance
- Food Emergencies
- Food Standards (including labeling)
Agency responsibilities as they pertain to each of the 14 areas are quite broad. The following are seven primary responsibilities:
- Formulating policy: Composing legislative policy as it pertains to compositional standards, labeling, nutrition, and more.
- Drafting secondary legislation: Composing legislation in safety areas not previously specified, but which are perceivably required nonetheless.
- Negotiating: Engaging in all negotiations—domestic and international—that may “constitute an important element of the Agency’s work.”
- Providing advice, guidance, and information: Developing an internal communications unit that is responsible for disseminating important public-health information relating to food safety.
- Conducting research and surveillance: Mobilizing both internal and external resources to carry out surveillance efforts deemed appropriate. Prioritizes use of local food-safety officers, public-health laboratories, and other resources.
- Establishing, monitoring and enforcing food-safety standards: Establishing authority to create and modify, as well as monitor and enforce, food-safety standards determined beneficial for public health.
- Issuing authorizations/approvals/licenses: Granting necessary authorizations, approvals and licenses for private entities to conduct business.