MPs have criticised ministers for refusing to give health promotion responsibilities to an independent food standards agency.

Public consultation on the draft Food Standards Bill, which will set up the independent agency, is due to end next week.

But public health minister Tessa Jowell told the Commons Food Standards Committee: 'I see the agency's function as being principally health protection rather than health promotion.'

The government drew up plans for the agency, which will report to the health secretary, following criticism of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for being too close to producers and manufacturers. But MPs on the committee felt the draft bill did not go far enough.

Stephen Ladyman said the document 'uses the term 'interests of consumers in relation to food' but it doesn't mention nutrition or health promotion. Nowhere in the bill are these phrases used'.

Ms Jowell told MPs that promoting public health was 'the job of the government', with the Department of Health in the lead role. The agency would be responsible for food safety and labelling, advising ministers and the public.

Food standards minister Jeff Rooker said there was 'a clear distinction' between health promotion and food standards.

Ms Jowell said giving the agency control of health promotion could mean giving it responsibility for issues such as 'the prevention of cancer, where diet plays a part but there are other considerations, such as environment and lifestyle'.

Committee chair Kevin Barron said the agency should 'take on diet and lifestyle' issues 'in years to come'. But Ms Jowell said such a change could take 10 years.

Donald Reid, chief executive of the Association for Public Health, said: 'The people who are lobbying against this are the food industry, who want it to stick to communicable diseases' such as E coli infection.

'We want the Food Standards Agency to cut through the confusion that exists over safety and nutrition and to do that it needs a role in health promotion.'

The agency will take over£25m of research work from MAFF and the DoH.

See news focus, page 13.