The FSA: Caught between a rock and a hard place

Posted: 17 April 2023 | | No comments yet

Professor Chris Elliott examines the performance of the Food Standards Agency in the UK’s food system after criticism was levelled at the regulator following an ongoing food fraud case.

chris' corner

Since it’s inception, just over 23 years ago, periodically and quite frequently, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has come under substantial scrutiny and indeed criticism from a number of quarters. Now is no different. In the wake of the meat scandal gripping the UK, some (including the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers) have called for major reforms to the organisation.

I think it’s fair to say the AIMs have never been a great fan of the agency and there have been tensions on a number of important issues over the years. In this instance, they felt aggrieved that the National Food Crime Unit (NFCU) (a part of the FSA) failed to share intelligence of their ongoing investigations with them whereas large food companies and retailers were informed via the Food Industry Intelligence Network.

I can see both sides of this argument, but do have significant sympathy with AIMS. My dealings with them have always been highly professional and their knowledge of what is going on (good and bad) in the meat sector is second to none. I do think there is a major lesson to be learned here.

At Westminster there are a few mutterings from some Conservative politicians about moving the FSA into the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and Therésè Coffey, the Secretary for State for DEFRA, said she was looking into this. I would respectively request she concentrates a little more on her current portfolio – which includes protecting miles of British coastline currently under threat from pollution (not least by some water companies).

Perhaps someone will also remind Coffey why the FSA was set up in the first place – as a result of the BSE scandal and when many of the public lost trust in the UK Government of the time. There were claims that there was a government cover up to protect the meat industry and important scientific evidence was ignored. The remit of food standards was moved from the Ministry of Food and Fisheries and the independent FSA was formed. Trust is a very important word here. The public, and I include myself in this, do trust the FSA to act independently and in the best interest of the consumer. How they go about this I may not always agree with.

More of the ugly iceberg has surfaced


The FSA has grown in size and responsibilities, then contracted due to restructuring within government, but has grown again in numbers. The most recent expansion has been due to Brexit and the unholy mess this has left our food standards in. I do fear a lot worse is to come after more bad trade deals are signed and more food that doesn’t meet our current standards floods into the country. To have a safe food system based on the principles of integrity we need a strong FSA, but also one that listens and engages much more with key stakeholders, particularly the food industry. Paying lip service to informed sources can come back to haunt the best of us.

I also personally believe the FSA is short, really short of scientists, food scientists who really understand the growing complexities, challenges and dangers of the national food system. I have pointed this out to both the CEO and Chair of the agency in the not too distant past. Having teams of social scientists who can survey and access attitudes to various issues is all well and good. but where multiple factors are driving many new risks to the safety of what we eat, it might be time for a few experts that can accurately identify these and develop strategies to mitigate against them.

My plea for the future is to have a strong, science-based, evidence-led agency that encourages and embraces meaningful stakeholder engagement. We need an FSA that will have the expertise, knowledge, strength and courage to meet the many challenges coming down the road.