“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 structure of the FSA] has worked very well,” she said.
Two reviews have been launched in response to the horsemeat scare. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) announced last month that it would review the entire regulatory framework for the food industry. Meanwhile, the FSA board commissioned an independent review into the non-ministerial department’s response to the events.
Asked directly about the reviews and whether the current structure is correct, Brown said: “I think that being a non-ministerial department has delivered some significant benefits for us, for government, for industry, and above all for the consumer. I think you need to be careful about getting too hung up on structure. It’s about how you work, your strategic focus and capability.”
Brown said that the current structure had been proven correct because the FSA was trusted during the horsemeat scare. “We went out directly into the press, into the public to communicate, and the public believed us.”
She added that industry also thinks it important that the FSA remains a non-ministerial department. “They see the benefits of it underpinning consumer confidence. Their nightmare scenario is that the consumer completely loses confidence in the supply chain and stops buying their products,” Brown said, adding that companies feared “the spectres of BSE and politicians saying ‘it’s fine here, look, my little girl’s eating the hamburger.’”
Not having a minister means that “you don’t have that kind of intimacy with the political establishment of the day,” she said. This means that the organisation can be part of government but “grounded in expertise and with particular credibility with the consumers,”
Shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh said last month in Parliament that the current regulatory system is “unfit for purpose” and that “the FSA knew that the Irish were testing for horse meat last November, yet did nothing until positive results came back [in January]”.
Brown denied that she knew about Irish testing until January 15, the day before the FSA made a public announcement.
She also said her organisation was quick to respond once it found out. “We were the first country to act in a really vigorous way,” she said, noting that the organisation carried out 6,000 food product tests in three weeks.
“Nobody else has done anything like it” Brown said, adding “We were miles ahead in terms of response”.
Read our interview with Catherine Brown