The Food Standards Agency's HQ was announced on the first anniversary of the BSE inquiry. But will it win public confidence? Mark Crail reports
When the new Food Standards Agency's 500 staff move into their head office in central London's Holborn some time next year, they will not have far to go to check on developments: the ground floor of the building is occupied by Sainsbury's.
But between nipping down to check on the latest genetically modified foods and doing a spot of shopping they will be expected to carry through 'one of the biggest shake-ups in food policy governance since the Second World War'.
The setting up of the agency - subject to the passage of a Food Standards Bill which has not yet gone before MPs - will mean, according to food safety minister Jeff Rooker, 'a clear focus on public health'.
If so, in that alone it would mark a significant break with the past: for decades consumer groups have criticised the close relationship between the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the farming and food industries.
And while the new agency will report to health ministers, it will do so only at arm's length, and will be free to publish its advice to ministers. It will also be a substantial arm of government, costing£30m to set up. Its£120m annual budget includes the wage costs of 500 staff at the London headquarters and 1,500 more in the Meat Hygiene Service.
It will have a UK-wide remit, with 'executive branches' in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
A white paper on the agency last year drew more than 1,000 responses. And, as a counter to powerful voices complaining that it will be a burden on business, some argue that it does not go far enough.
A summary of responses notes that 'the major consumer groups, medical and academic bodies and local government interests' all want to see the agency's 'essential aim' strengthened to include health promotion as well as protection.
The British Medical Association wants to see it go further still. 'The new agency needs to regulate food labelling and food production processes as well as hygiene procedures,' argues BMA council chair Dr Ian Bogle.
Restoring public confidence in food may be a monumentally difficult task.
By coincidence, as health secretary Frank Dobson was announcing the Food Standards Agency's new headquarters, the BSE inquiry was marking the first anniversary of the start of its public hearings. When the inquiry was set up at the end of 1997, ministers had intended it to report within a year. Its first action was to demand a six-month extension. Last month it got a further six months.
In 95 days of hearings, it has taken evidence from more than 300 witnesses, ploughed through 2,000 government files, seen its chair ennobled and won a Freedom of Information award.
And all of that was the easy stuff. Phase two, due to begin shortly, 'will deal with potential criticisms, clarifications and conflicts of interest'.Draft Food Standards Bill and Food Standards Agency
BSE Inquiry www.bse.org.uk