What does the FSA stand for?

It is not often that I find myself agreeing with the Daily Mail. However a recent article by Joanna Blythman had me nodding my head furiously in agreement (read it here www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-1203343/JOANNA-BLYTHMAN-A-cancerous-conspiracy-poison-faith-organic-food.html ).

Joanna – like many others – was outraged by the recent report commissioned by the Food Standards Agency at a cost of £120,000 which purports to show that there is no nutritional difference between organic and non-organic food. Read the report here ( www.food.gov.uk/news/newsarchive/2009/jul/organic ).

In order to get this result the FSA has had to perform some remarkable convolutions. Firstly it entrusted the review to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, an organisation with little previous experience of organic food. Secondly it imposed a set of rules on what research could be included that had the effect of excluding some key findings. Thirdly the report specifically excluded any consideration of how the presence of pesticide residues affected human health, which is bizarre since avoiding artificial pesticides is a fundamental feature of organic production. Finally the timing of the work excludes results from the pan-European QLIF project, due at the end of this year.

The reaction to this report was extraordinary. Radical organisations such as The Daily Telegraph rubbished the report as a clumsy attack on the organic sector. When I checked the BBC Radio 4 blog the day after the report had been released out of around 50 postings the overwhelming majority were pro-organic, with many posters showing a good understanding of the benefits of organic production. A good summary of the organic sector’s response to the FSA report can be found here www.organicandfairplus.com/2009/07/29/soil-association-response-to-the-food-standards-agencys-organic-review .

When Baroness Brenda Dean carried out a review of the FSA one of her areas of criticism was that the Agency tended to be unfairly critical of the organic sector. Whilst Professor John Krebs was in charge of the FSA his own personal animosity towards the organic sector was unmistakeable. However the current review has been produced during the time that Dame Deirdre Hutton has been in charge, which makes its content inexplicable.

When the FSA sponsored the City Food Lecture and invited the Soil Association to speak I had high hopes that this indicated a softening of the FSA’s views. Sadly this has not been maintained. However this new attack on organics has served only to highlight the deficiencies of the FSA.