By Joshua.Chambers

09 May 2013

The new chief executive of the Food Standards Agency, Catherine Brown, tells Joshua Chambers about the pressure her organisation faced when, just after she joined, traces of horsemeat were found in food products.

“Sorry, I’m a bit flummoxed today, my diary’s a bit out of hand,” Catherine Brown says during this interview, but that’s perfectly understandable – it’s been a hectic few months for the chief executive of the Food Standards Agency (FSA). On January 15th, she first heard that frozen food products might be contaminated with horsemeat and “then for two or three months, the situation was moving day by day, hour by hour.”

The revelation that frozen foods couldn’t be trusted caused scandal in the UK, resulting in massive media pressure and strong criticism in Parliament. The Labour Party even said the scandal showed that the FSA – which is responsible for food safety and hygiene across the UK – is “unfit for purpose”.

Brown fiercely defends her organisation’s handling of the crisis, but admits that being in the spotlight for so long has been “quite a challenge, because you’re also flat out trying to manage an incident, make things happen, do the dynamic risk assessment and – over the last three months – there’s been an almost infinite appetite for us also to be on live TV, on the radio, constantly, constantly engaging.”

Back in October when she first started in the role, it’s unlikely Brown expected she’d be facing this kind of pressure. But she’s proud of how her organisation has handled the crisis; bullish that the FSA shouldn’t be scrapped; and ready to take on the food industry once again – this time to stop the sale of chicken containing toxic levels of bacteria.

No one trick pony
Brown joined the FSA from the Animal Health and Veterinary Agency, so she’s somewhat familiar with equine affairs. And like many quango chief executives, she has plenty of private sector experience, training as a graduate with Unilever and eventually becoming managing director of BUPA’s occupational health and wellness business.

How does the FSA compare with her previous employers? Brown says she’s involved more in policymaking, rather than just operational delivery, and it feels more like the traditional civil service, where there are also “differences of cultural and temperamental approach, compared to either the private sector or some other parts of the civil service with a strong delivery ethos.”

The FSA is an unusual quango because it’s a “non-ministerial department”, embodying many characteristics from traditional Whitehall ministries but without an elected leader. This meant that, during the horsemeat crisis, Brown had to become something of a public figurehead – “out there and engaging with the public”. She split the media work with environment secretary Owen Paterson, with the FSA answering enforcement, technical and consumer advice questions. “For us, it’s been a great opportunity to be able to talk to the public directly,” she says. “Civil servants and, indeed, people from the private sector are not used to this level of press work that we’ve done recently.” Traditionally, agency chief executives are more in the spotlight than departmental permanent secretaries, but during the horsemeat scandal, Brown was particularly hands-on, even managing the media team and the FSA’s communication efforts.

Were there problems in striking the right balance with Paterson? After all, officials can’t be seen to be taking the spotlight away from elected representatives; but, equally, politicians aren’t particularly keen to be blamed for problems that people might want to pin on the FSA. Brown responds: “It could have been awful, because it was a really challenging situation, there was a lot of pressure on. It could have been about whose fault it was… it wasn’t at all. It was about: what can each of us bring to the party? What can each of us do together?” She cites joint meetings with industry figures as an example of her partnership with Paterson.

Not horsing around
The horsemeat scandal started in Ireland: the Food Safety Authority of Ireland found horse DNA in frozen beef products – with one containing 29 per cent horsemeat – and on January 16th it made a public announcement, with ten million products being pulled off the shelves by UK supermarkets. Brown says she first heard “the day before, so it was right up against it”. This statement contradicts that of Labour’s shadow environment spokesperson, Mary Creagh, who said in Parliament “the FSA knew that the Irish were testing for horsemeat last November, yet did nothing until positive results came back.”

Creagh also criticised the FSA for being too slow to react when horses testing positive for the pain killer phenylbutazone – known as bute – entered the human food chain. Asked about criticisms that the FSA was too slow to respond, Brown sounds uncertain: “I’m not sure, we weren’t by much.” She adds: “We’d been working on assessing the risk of bute getting in… it’s always been an issue being clear on whether bute is getting into the food chain, and we had for the previous year been doing increased sampling, risk assessment – it’s a low risk to human health, but nonetheless it shouldn’t be getting in – so actually it was within weeks of the incident that, as a result of all the other work we’d been doing, we moved to a hundred per cent positive release for horsemeat.” This means that all horses slaughtered in the UK are now tested for bute, and therefore no horse that tests positive can enter the human food chain.

Compared with other European countries, the UK was very quick to respond to the problems, Brown says. “We were the first country to act in a really vigorous way. We were compelled by moral pressure and political pressure and close working with government to turn around 6,000 tests [of frozen food products] in three weeks. Nobody else has done anything like it.”

Brown gets into her stride, standing up for an organisation she clearly thinks has been unfairly traduced. “We were miles ahead in terms of response. We were the first country to put a dossier to Europol. We were the first country to make arrests and to make cases for prosecution”.

Spotting Shergar
The Irish started testing food products for horse DNA in November 2012, so why did Brown only find out on January 15th? “The issue there was that the Irish were waiting to have absolute confirmation before they told anyone. We’re talking to the Irish, and indeed we’re talking to industry, about whether there are ways that we can share information when it’s at draft stage – before it is absolutely confirmed.” Currently, there isn’t a formal way of sharing information across Europe on these issues, although a system is now being developed in response to this scandal.

Brown says that the FSA should be confident about how it has worked with other organisations. When she arrived, the FSA had just completed its capability review, which said it should work closely and quickly with other departments. The FSA’s response to the horsemeat problems has vindicated it, Brown believes.

Nevertheless, the government has commissioned a review into the FSA’s reaction to the crisis and the overall regulatory structure, while the FSA’s board has also commissioned its own report (see news). “Obviously there will now be a whole phase of reviews, and all of us will think about what this tells us about the future and shape of organisations, but all of the feedback I get from industry, from politicians, from the UK, says [the FSA has] worked very well,” Brown says. The public believed the FSA when it said there wasn’t a safety risk, she adds, and “the prime minister asked us to investigate what had happened so, obviously, in extremis we came to his mind, even though policy on [food] authenticity in England is a Defra [Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] matter.”

It has been suggested that the current structure makes the FSA unaccountable, but Brown says that “I’m sure that anyone who works for the private sector and then works for an organisation like the FSA would find [the idea] that we’re not accountable laughable.” Personally, she’s accountable to the FSA’s board, the Public Accounts Committee, the equivalents in Scotland and Wales, the press, and to members of the public.

Indeed, she believes a level of independence from government helps the FSA do its job. For a start, it answers to more than one administration – working across devolved administrations with different political makeups. The FSA’s credibility with devolved administrations is enhanced by not being directly tied to a secretary of state. “We’ve got a level of independence and consumer credibility that suits governments, helps consumers, and certainly has suited industry in this case. Industry spends a lot of time saying: ‘We really like having an independent regulator.’”

A stable relationship
Why is independence from government important to industry? Distancing politicians from the process increases consumer confidence, Brown argues (see news) – avoiding a credibility problem as experienced during the BSE crisis.

It also allows the FSA to distance itself from a powerful lobby. “It’s there in our statute: ‘Putting the interests of the consumer first.’ There’s no conflict; we’re not in a situation where we have to sponsor the industry”. Defra has to protect, support and help that industry grow, she says, while “it’s good for the consumer to have confidence that – somewhere in the world – there’s an organisation that’s not primarily focused on supporting the industry, but is primarily focused on putting the consumer first.”

Brown is quick to stress, though, that the FSA does look to support the growth of UK companies. “A lot of the things we do around exports and demonstrating the quality and processes around food production in this country underpin the approval and opening up of new export markets for our food industry,” she says. It’s important to support growth “because, in the long run, that will be in the consumers’ interests as well.”

Two former members of the industry are on the FSA’s board, and Brown meets regularly with its representative bodies. A close relationship with industry has allowed the FSA to make progress on food labelling, she says. “We’ve just been really pleased to see that the British Retail Consortium has produced some guidance on the new rules on allergen labelling, so that’s a good example of government standing back, getting industry to step up and think about the best way of approaching a new European regulation.”

What does she think of the current system of food labelling? Is it any good, I ask – it does seem pretty complicated. She laughs: “It isn’t simple, but then what’s in your food – as has been shown in recent months – isn’t as simple as people think it is. I think that the changes that are being made now have the potential to make things better for consumers; particularly in the allergen space, which is where we have a particular interest because it’s about safety.”

Not chickening out
Brown also says that the FSA can be tough on industry when it needs be. For example, it is about to crack down on poultry farmers over campylobacter, a bacteria that kills around a hundred people a year in the UK, and can cause chronic health conditions in those who are poisoned by it and survive. “Last time we checked – and we’re about to do another of our periodic surveys – two thirds of the chicken that you buy in this country has campylobacter on it, of which a good number have a very significant loading, so that’s how it’s getting into people’s kitchens,” she says. “The poultry industry is clearly making profits. I know it’s a very tight-margin industry, and they are trying and we have done all sorts of research together and lots of work to try to make it better – but it’s not actually working yet”.

The FSA is ready to act: “We’ve reached the limits on campylobacter because the public are not expecting that two thirds of the chicken that they take into their kitchen will make them ill. If we don’t see some significant progress in the next three to six months, what we’ll end up doing is drawing this to the attention of the public in a more vigorous and targeted way. I think [an FSA intervention] – particularly after the horsemeat situation – could have a very significant effect on what is a very important chunk of retail business and the food industry.” Making this issue public would be a big step, Brown admits, because “if people stopped eating chicken, they might eat something that would be worse for them.”

Brown’s critics should beware: she clearly has a tough side. Given the media and political pressure she has faced over the past few months – and will continue to face – she needs it. But she feels that the FSA’s actions in the horsemeat crisis have shown that it is capable of doing its job; that its structure is absolutely the right one; and that it can be tough on industry when it needs to be – without causing a crisis of consumer confidence.

But what about the quality of our food? In terms of food safety, how does that compare historically? Brown says there are more sophisticated ways of testing food than ever before; the food industry is more focused on safety; and that there’s a large number of environmental health officers and trading standards staff checking food and hygiene. “I think all the evidence would suggest that things are getting better, not worse.” It’s also clear that she’d give the same answer on the FSA itself.

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