Committee of Public Accounts - Meetings


Press Notice No. 45 of Session 2002-03, dated 27 November 2003


FORTY-FIFTH REPORT: PROTECTING PUBLIC HEALTH AND CONSUMER INTERESTS IN RELATION TO FOOD: THE FOOD STANDARDS AGENCY (HC 708)

Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said that it was worrying that the Food Standards Agency has not yet demonstrated convincingly that it is able to lead on issues of food safety and standards, and urged the Agency to monitor the extent to which its advice is being used.

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 45th Report of this Session, which examined the performance of the Food Standards Agency over the first three years of its operation and the action it is taking to improve the services it provides to the public. The Food Standards Agency is a non-ministerial Department responsible for protecting public health and consumer interests in relation to food.

The Committee found that the Agency has not yet demonstrated convincingly that it is able to lead on issues of food safety and standards and is an authoritative and trusted voice where there is public doubt. In the case of hygiene in catering establishments, for example, where the Agency is responsible for ensuring that regulations on food safety and standards across the UK are enforced to protect consumers, the Agency needs to disseminate more widely and more quickly information from its audits of local authority enforcement activity in order to reassure the public that monitoring and control are adequate.

Greater clarity is needed about the Agency's roles and responsibilities. A lack of clarity in the relationship of the Agency to other government departments and agencies creates a risk that important issues of food standards and safety could be missed or action not taken sufficiently quickly by any one body. The Agency needs to establish a stronger presence and profile among other government bodies with which it works, principally DEFRA. Where there are shared responsibilities, such as over the control of imported food, the Agency should be proactive, clearly defining its own role and clarifying the responsibilities of others so that the potential for confusion or gaps in oversight is minimised.

The Agency should adopt a more concerted and consistent approach to communicating with the public. The Agency communicates with the public through the media, its website, information circulated to local authorities and through specific campaigns about food. Despite the importance of its work, however, the Agency remains largely unknown to the public as a primary source of information and advice about food. A long term strategy to increase awareness of the Agency's role is needed to raise its profile. As a first step the Agency should make arrangements to monitor the extent to which its advice and information is being used by the public. It should also assess which media activities have most impact; for example, whether selective continuous advertising is more effective than one-off campaigns.

Mr Leigh said today:

"Public confidence in the safety of food was seriously undermined by high profile issues such as BSE. But up to 4.5 million cases of food poisoning a year have also heightened public awareness. It is disturbing then that the Agency has not yet demonstrated convincingly that it is able to lead on issues of food safety and standards. For example, the Agency's campaign to raise hygiene awareness in catering establishments has not changed behaviour, with more than one third of staff still not washing their hands after using the toilet. The Agency needs to monitor the extent to which its advice and information is being used, and develop a long term strategy to boost its profile."


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