THE Food Standards Agency (FSA) ditched a major campaign to reduce the risks of food poisoning in Scotland because the government was anxious not to antagonise business in the run-up to the general election.
According to internal documents obtained by the Sunday Herald under the Freedom of Information Act, guidance for over 50,000 restaurants, pubs and other food businesses on how to prevent their customers from becoming ill had to be overhauled. And plans for TV and press adverts, a big media launch and a celebrity chef “masterclass” were scrapped.
FSA Scotland, based in Aberdeen, abandoned its plans for implementing new food safety rules because ministers in London did not want to impose “potential burdens on small business”, according to the documents .
This is despite the FSA’s prediction that at least 40% of Scotland’s food and catering businesses will breach the European safety standards due to come into force next year. The breaches could lead to ministers being taken to court and fined by the European Commission.
The revelations have also prompted criticisms that the FSA is breaking its promise to be an “independent food-safety watchdog”. It was set up in the wake of the BSE crisis in 2000 to make sure that public health was never again compromised by dangerous behaviour in the food and farming industry.
Steve Sinclair, the agency’s head of communications until July 2004, said: “I am astonished that FSA Scotland abandoned its plan to control food hazards after all the time, effort and cash spent on it.
“It was a high-profile programme with a great deal of time and effort devoted to it by the agency’s leaders. The question is: who is pulling their strings and for what purpose?”
Sinclair said that in the latter stages of planning its campaign last year, FSA Scotland had been informed by headquarters in London about a directive from the Cabinet Office that said government departments must not be seen to increase the burden on business.
“We believed this was part of the early build-up to the general election campaign. Shortly after this, our campaign was shelved and, ultimately, appears to have been abandoned,” Sinclair said.
“This seems to have been done for political reasons. It flies in the face of the entire rationale for setting up the Food Standards Agency in the first place. How can the agency claim to be an independent watchdog if it bows to political pressure like this?”
Last year, 6820 cases of food poisoning were officially reported in Scotland, mostly caused by the contamination of meat and dairy products with bacteria such as salmonella and campylobacter. The actual number of people suffering stomach upsets and diarrhoea is much higher, as many don’t go to their doctor.
As part of its efforts to tackle the problem, FSA Scotland planned to launch a campaign to help implement European food safety regulations due to come into force on January 1, 2006. Known as HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point), they are a set of procedures for identifying and recording the main areas of risk in any process involving food.
A confidential HACCP Communications Plan was drawn up by FSA Scotland officials in August 2003. It was costed at £252,500, envisaging a “high-profile campaign”, including adverts in the media and on buses and billboards.
The plan also proposed a “cookery masterclass” for caterers, hosted by a celebrity chef such as Nick Nairn. It suggested that up to five well-known restaurants could be roped in as “media champions”, as well as seminars, a website, an award scheme, a briefing for MSPs and a “media dinner”.
In addition, FSA Scotland invested a great deal of energy in drawing up a detailed manual of guidance to help caterers adapt to the new regulations. The draft was piloted with 91 businesses in nine local authorities during the summer and autumn of 2003.
FSA Scotland was encouraged in its plans by a £4 million grant from the Scottish Executive to promote HACCP in 2004-05 and 2005-06. It had relatively more resources, and was more advanced in its planning, than the FSA in the rest of the UK.
But then in April and May 2004, everything changed. The high-profile campaign was replaced by a “low-key rollout”, according to internal FSA documents, and there was to be “no uncontrolled release” of the guidance manual, which ended up being rewritten.
Instead of advertisements and celebrity chefs, there was to be “no publicity and no launch”, according to the minutes of one meeting. The target audience was to be local authorities, not caterers, and “in communicating with these groups, no fanfare is needed”. Other papers show that there had been “much correspondence” between the FSA and the Cabinet Office in London.
FSA Scotland pointed out this weekend that the high-profile campaign was an initial draft rather than a final plan.
“It was decided not to go ahead with a full-scale media and stakeholder launch because FSA Scotland wanted to co-ordinate its activities with [those of] our colleagues in England, Wales and Northern Ireland,” said a spokeswoman for the agency.
The HACCP guidance manual was “amended” in the light of lessons learned in the pilot programme and renamed “CookSafe”, she stated. “There is no link between the general election and the change of plan.”
And she added that because work in Scotland was further ahead than elsewhere, a decision was taken not to pre-empt the distribution of guidance throughout the UK. “A low-key approach, directly targeting catering businesses through local authorities, was considered more appropriate,” the spokeswoman said.
She added: “The changes made to the pilot guide were aimed at making it easier for business to use. We are also fulfilling our legal obligations by implementing HACCP legislation and we have not acted in a way that would compromise our independence.”
FSA Scotland insisted that the turnabout in its plans would not prevent it from meeting its target of reducing food-borne illness by 20% by 2006. But a letter last year from FSA consultants, Checkmate International, warned that the take-up of HACCP among small businesses was “well below desirable levels”.
Criticisms of the FSA were echoed last week by one of the country’s leading food-safety experts, Professor Hugh Pennington, a microbiologist at Aberdeen University and a former member of the FSA’s Scottish Food Advisory Committee. His report on the E coli 0157 poisoning outbreak in Wishaw in 1996 was instrumental in introducing HACCP procedures for butchers.
Pennington blamed FSA officials in London for being too reluctant to get tough with offending businesses. “Considering it is a legal requirement, they are still pussyfooting around it and talking about changing its name,” he said.
And the FSA still had problems with its independence, he argued. “It is part of government and is still susceptible to influence from other parts of government,” he added.
BREAKING FOOD SAFETY RULES
number of food establishments in Scotland / number now failing 2006 food safety rules / number expected to fail in 2007 / number expected to fail in 2011
53,000 / 32,900 (62%) / 22,800 (43%) / 13,300 (25%)
Source: Food Standards Agency
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