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Food Standards Agency on the Web
Food Standards Agency on the Web
Two previous articles in this series provide background to this review:
The first review article (Food on the Web 18) gave a stage by stage summary of the progression from initial recommendations from Professor Philip James in April 1997 through to the Parliamentary consideration of the Food Standards Bill in 1999. The Food Standards Bill led to the Food Standards Act 1999, the principal function of which was to establish, in the UK, the Food Standards Agency.
The second review article (Food on the Web 19) included consideration of the Web sites provided by a number of other new food standards authorities (in Canada, Ireland and France). This article concluded with the observation that the new UK Food Standards Agency would no doubt have a Web presence and the promise that the site would be reviewed as soon as practical.
The new Food Standards Agency (FSA) came into operation on Monday 3 April 2000 and its Web presence was immediate. The review that follows is based on material available a couple of weeks after the establishment of the FSA and readers should note that the site will inevitably evolve in the future – as will be indicated later, several areas for development are already apparent and obvious.
Web Site Review
All of the material referred to below may be accessed from the main FSA Web site. The general URL is as follows:
The Home Page opens in English but offers the alternative of a Welsh language version.
The direct URL for the Welsh version is http:/www.foodstandards. gov.uk/index_wales.htm.
However, Welsh readers are likely to be very disappointed since the link only gives a Welsh translation of the Home Page; all subsequent links are to the same English language material as are accessed from the standard Home Page. It is not clear whether translations will be available in the future but the current presentation is disappointing – I am sure that it would have been much more acceptable to keep to the English version until a proper Welsh alternative is available.
From the home page onwards, the presentation is clearly intended to be user-friendly. The style is very consumer-focused – this, of course, reflects the FSA's general remit to improve consumer confidence in the food sold in the UK and more important to improve confidence in the work of the governmental bodies with responsibilities in the area of food safety. Whilst the consumer-focus is used as a presentational style much of the material presented on the FSA Web site will primarily be of interest to those operating food businesses or working in other positions with interests in food supply.
The Web site's Home Page (as accessed from the URL cited above) provides a brief welcome statement which, as stated above, is extremely consumer-focused – "our aim is to make sure the food you eat is safe …". The welcome statement also requests personal consumer input to the FSA – "what are the food issues that interest you?" and "what kind of information and advice would you find useful?" The two questions are posed in a somewhat ambiguous manner and the reader is left somewhat unsure whether the FSA is referring to its services generally or merely to the Web site.
Ideally, if the FSA is to be a responsive consumer-focused organisation, the questions should apply to the general work of the Agency in all its activities and actions. However, the follow-on statement that "we'll be using your replies to develop this site so that it provides the information you need to feel confident about the food you eat" suggests (perhaps erroneously) that the readers' feedback is needed only with respect to presentational (rather than substantive) matters.
The Home Page also provides straightforward links to a wide range of material relevant to either the work of the FSA (in its various guises – see below) or to current food policy/food legislation issues.
The primary links are as listed below. The list is reproduced in the order presented on the Web site. For each item I have provided a brief comment.
This offers an opportunity to submit comments on the two questions reported above. Users are invited to type in their questions. As commented above, the feedback page appears more focused on the presentation of issues on the Web site rather than (more important) the issues that the FSA might address. There is no indication that responses will be acknowledged.
About the Agency
This leads to a further menu that offers access to information on the following topics:
aims and values;
register of the Board;
organisation and structure;
Of the above, the item of most general concern is the organisation and structure of the new Agency – that is, "how will this new public body operate?"
Here, on the Web site, there is a discussion of the organisational structure of the FSA. This includes cross-reference to the regional Executives (see below). The main portion of this section is a series of short descriptions of the various elements that together constitute the FSA:
Food Safety Policy Group:
Additives and Novel Foods Division;
Animal Feed Division;
Chemical Safety and Toxicology Division;
Research Support Unit.
Environment and Food Standards Group:
Food Labelling, Standards and Consumer Protection Division;
Local Authority Enforcement (Policy) Division;
Meat Hygiene Division;
Finance, Procurement and IT Division;
Personnel and Establishments Division;
Meat Hygiene Service.
For each of the above there is a short paragraph that outlines the principal functions and responsibilities.
This and the following two sections note the current (2000) UK Government commitment to devolution.
The FSA has a Scottish Executive (FSA-SE) which, in general, mirrors the operation of the FSA in London. However, there are important points of note: Responsibility for food safety and standards has been transferred to the Scottish Parliament and the FSA Scotland provides advice to this body and its Ministers.
However, the FSA Scotland operates within the UK FSA in order to ensure consistency of approach – except if particular Scottish circumstances apply.
This section also gives details of the work of the Scottish Food Advisory Committee.
For Wales, the extent of devolution has not been so great as that afforded to Scotland and accordingly, the Welsh site is less expansive. A key section describes the work of the Advisory Committee for Wales.
In Northern Ireland, the FSA-NI will carry out the food safety functions previously conducted by a variety of Northern Ireland Central Government Departments. As elsewhere in the UK, the aim is to bring everything relating to food safety into a single agency. The FSA will be advised by an Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland.
Here the site lists (and provides links to the documents relating to) consultations being undertaken with respect to food legislation. It is probable, with the devolution referred to above, that this section will focus on legislation due to apply in England and to matters of UK-wide importance.
At the time of writing (mid April 2000), only two formal consultations were listed as current – these related to the following topics:
Food law enforcement
Removal of the dairy hygiene inspection charges.
It is expected that, for each consultation exercise, the site will provide the full set of documentation – that is:
the correspondence from the official dealing with the matter;
a statement detailing the expected impact of the measure (in financial terms);
the actual proposed measures;
a list of those from whom comment has already been sought by post or other means.
The FSA has declared that is to be as open as possible in its operation; thus many of its activities will be open to public view. The first regional Open Forum was to take place in the West Midlands on 31 May 2000 and others will follow. Also, the Board of the FSA will hold its meetings in public – details are posted in this section of the Web site.
This lists (and provides links to the full text of) recent press releases from the FSA. This includes the text of recent speeches by the Chairman (and, I guess, in the future, other senior personnel including the Deputy Chairman).
Your food – from farm to fork
This section is largely still in the preparation phase and much is promised for the future. It is intended as a consumer information section.
Here there are links to the work of each of the many Independent Advisory Committees and Food Working Parties that provide advice to the FSA and to the relevant Ministers.
An introduction to the FSA research programme.
Links to (recently) published research reports. At the date of writing this new site had just a single link – to a report on "UK publicly-funded research relating to verocytotoxin-producing Escherichia coli (VTEC)". Obviously, other new reports will be added – but it is not yet clear to what extent this section will be used as an archive for reports as they become aged and perhaps outdated or replaced.
This provides a brief description of the UK food surveillance programme. It also gives links to Surveillance Information Sheets whether produced under the aegis of the FSA or earlier.
This gives details of new regulations proposed after 1 April 2000. It is too soon to comment on how this section will develop. However, at the time of writing it provides a link to proposed regulations relating to the licensing of retail butchers' shops in England.
Regulations in effect before 1 April are considered in "Archive" – see below.
Industry and enforcement
Here the emphasis is on formal public consultations that may lead to legislation in the future. The site provides links to the full text of consultation papers. It is not yet clear whether this section of the site will merely provide information on current consultations or whether it will hold an archive of earlier papers.
Meat Hygiene Service
This is a major section of the FSA (and there was significant debate about whether the MHS should be part of the FSA). This part of the FSA Web site describes, in some detail (12 pages), the work of the MSA – especially in respect of its main legislative requirements.
This section is intended to provide links to information provided by MAFF, the Department of Health and the Scottish Executive before the launch of the FSA.
This provides links to the Web sites of other (at present, just UK) organisations. This list is expected to expand and may offer overseas links in due course.
This gives the "Customer Services" postal address for the FSA and reminds consumers that complaints about particular food businesses or practices should be addressed to local authority environmental health departments.
This is a very-recently-established site (only public for a couple of weeks at the date of writing this review); it will no doubt evolve. In particular, it remains to be seen what arrangements will be made for the presentation of nominally "spent" items such as old press releases and earlier versions of consultation documents.
First impressions: this will be a valuable site of reference. However, there is a possibility that for most people, the search for the "holy grail" of access to information might (to severely mix metaphors) be achieved by providing a forest of information in which it is difficult to find the right tree.
Food information specialists will find their way around the information (as they have around the paper sources). But the general public, for whom the site is apparently designed (see Home Page) will not fare so well. After just two weeks of operation the text on the site runs to a small book – obviously this will grow.
The principal omission from the site (and one that will be most useful to the public that it claims to serve) is an in-house search engine. At present, a couple of weeks in, it is not easy to judge exactly what the site will look like in two or three years time – but I guess, and everyone will agree. that there will be considerably more "stuff" there. So, how will the member of the public locate all the material with respect to government control of XXXX? (where XXXX could be anything from a specific additive to a generic matter relating to (say) genetically modified (GM) food sources).
At present the site appears nice and tidy (I suspect that this may not last as more material is added). What will be a user's impression in (say) a year's time? – this has to be a topic to be included in a review article for next year.
If you have identified a Web site likely to be of interest to readers of British Food Journal please contact the author of this series of articles at one or the addresses given below.
By email to email@example.com
By fax to 01234 766926 or 01582 743237.
By post at the University of Luton.
Acknowledgement will be given to those providing such identification.
Dr Stephen FallowsUniversity of Luton