Friday, 23 July 2010

Letter to Tim Smith, Chief Executive, Food Standards Agency

21 July 2010

Tim J Smith
Chief Executive

Dear Mr Smith

I am writing to express my dismay at your open letter dated 7 August 2009 about organic food and the FSA website in general. Although your letter is nearly a year old, the study referred to in your letter is still generating ‘news’ and reflected on the FSA website.

The Agency says that it is neither for nor against organic food. However, the slant of the information on organic food is in favour of conventional over organic food because it fails to recognise the benefits of organic food in a positive manner.

To begin with, why is a paragraph about the safety of pesticides and additives included under information about organic food when pesticides are not used in its production and less additives are used? And, if you feel this is important, then why not add some information about the known risks of having pesticides and lots of additives in our foods as well (there’s plenty).

And, why were there “commercials” during the break in the Board meeting webcast on 20 July which included the ‘news’ on this Report? I found the whole intermission presentation to be distasteful, annoying and inaccurate. It was hype and unhelpful.

And WHY is the 12 million pound, 4-year EU study on the benefits of organic food not mentioned on the FSA website. This report shows that fruit, vegetables and milk, are more nutritious than non-organically produced food and may contain higher concentrations of cancer fighting and heart beneficial antioxidants. It is understandable why the Organic Soil Association promotes organic food. But it is not understandable why the FSA demotes organic food. Could you please explain?

As the FSA is supposed to be an independent body, I would suggest that people with alternative views should sit on the board. The board meeting I watched yesterday was filled with back patting statements and people agreeing with each other. Expression of alternative views is how progress is made. The FSA is stuck in a rut. In these times of global warming, GM technology, terrorism, BP oil spills, etc, etc., a little more effort would go a long way with the consumer in a demonstration of fair dealing, honesty, open mindedness and debate. Simply stating that a scientific study says so doesn’t wash it. It is well known today, that an ‘expert’ can be found to support any ‘scientific claim’ and scientific claims are forever being proven wrong. A more even handed dissemination of all available information, not stuff that supports one point of view is what I would be looking for in an independent government department.

And your letter, the news slant and FSA stance is upsetting. It is hard work for farmers to change over to organic and produce to organic standards which are strict. It is mind boggling that a government body could be so callous towards such a well-meaning effort!

The Agency further states that its interest is in providing accurate information to support consumer choice. But I do not think you have succeeded with your coverage on organic food.

“Taken together, the eleven articles do not currently provide any evidence of health benefits from consuming organic compared to conventionally produced foods.” This statement from the conclusion of the Report should be read, reported and cited in context. The context being “only eleven articles relating to nutrient content” were considered for the conclusion and “the reviews were very heterogeneous (meaning not the same) in terms of study design, exposure and health outcome. How can you base a scientific position on this Report? It really makes me wonder about the rest of your ‘positions’ and the effectiveness of the organisation you head.

Furthermore, why does the FSA have to take a position? Why can’t the FSA be neutral, especially about something as benign as a choice of organic over conventional food? After all, eating organic food is certainly not a health threat. It should be the consumer that takes a position on issues such as this, based on all available evidence, not the FSA.

“Irresponsible interpretation of the review by some has resulted in misleading claims being made concerning higher levels of some nutrients found in organic food.” With all due respect, I would submit that it is you who is irresponsible in your claims. The “important message from this report” was not that we “should eat a healthy balanced diet and, in terms of nutrition, it doesn’t matter if this is made up of organic or conventionally produced food.” The important message was that this research was done with an extremely limited evidence base, and further research, especially with more inter-disciplinary approaches, was recommended.

I am planning to write a book about the food industry, after I’ve finished reading the many books and articles that have already been written. The FSA will be mentioned. As it stands, the FSA will not be receiving a favourable mention by me (more along the lines of Big Fat Lies seems justified right now). The removal of nutrition from the FSA remit will probably be a positive move. Over the coming year or so, I’ll be keeping my eye on developments.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely

J. Wilson BSc, LLB (Honours), GDip (Law), PGDip (LPC)