Sunday, 31 October 2010

Full Circle with the FSA on Nutritional Viability of Organic Food

Updated on 8 December 2010
The answers to the questions I submitted to the General Advisory Committee on Science (GACS) at the Food Standards Agency (FSA) on 19 October 2010 are now available on the FSA website (click here to access), but I have reproduced them at the end of this article as well.  Considering that the FSA has been attacking organic food since its inception in 2000 (see my book report on Food Wars) and the unsatisfactory response to my questions, I think it is obvious that the FSA has an agenda which has nothing to do with consumer interests.

No full moon this Halloween (2010), but a full circle is almost as good. 

Below is a copy of an email I received from the General Advisory Committee on Science about the 19 October 2010 open meeting at the FSA in London which sets out some questions I raised beforehand. The GACS advises the FSA on scientific matters.

After sitting through the whole meeting, I picked up on some facts that related to my questions which were on two issues: genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and Organic Food. So the meeting was worthwhile.

The GMO discussion was based on a report as published on the FSA website about the proposed public dialogue referred to as the GM dialogue project. With two members of the committee having had resigned and the project having been discontinued, the GACS was discussing lessons to be learned from the aborted project. The only part of this report I could think to raise questions on was an article about GM by Professor Colin Blakemore (the chair of the GACS meeting) in the Observer in June 2010. I have not reproduced these questions here because I decided to drop them at the suggestion of Mr Blakemore since the important point was for Mr Blakemore to answer them for himself.

I got some satisfaction with my second set of questions though which were based on what I experienced this summer with research carried out by the FSA on a nutritional comparison between organic food and non-organic food (FSA Report). This is how I came to start writing this blog. Now at the end of the Celtic year, I have come full circle by having had this issue addressed in person.

Briefly what happened is that when I started a subscription with the Financial Times and started following news tweets and other news on the Internet in July, I learned about the GM potato trials in Norfolk and the FSA Report. Because the FSA Report is extremely limited but was used and advertised by the FSA and frequently put in the news to claim that organic food is definitively not more nutritious than non-organic food, even by the Chief Executive in an open letter on the FSA website, I got the distinct impression that this was part of a campaign to denigrate organic food in order to promote GM food. I wrote a letter to the Chief Executive, Tim Smith, and set out my concerns therein, but did not receive any reply.

From what I gathered at the meeting, especially from the FSA Chief Scientist Andrew Wadge, the FSA commissioned this report in order to fulfil its duty to advise consumers and give them the needed information to make informed choices. I said that the Report was limited and the exercise was narrow, and in essence, it was generally unhelpful. Now that I know it cost £120,000.00, I would repeat that the money would have been better spent elsewhere, such as reviewing evidence that regular consumption of sugary drinks increases the likelihood of becoming obese, rots teeth and has little to no nutrition.  That would have been welcome news to my ears and many others concerned about the obesity epidemic.

In my last question below, I asked about a European study  on nutritional content of organic food compared to non-organic food, and it seems that this has not been published yet. However, when it is, it will most likely make the FSA Report obsolete.

GACS open meeting 19 October - recorded wording of questions for the Committee [response requested by Thursday 4 November]
Thursday, 28 October, 2010 15:42
From: "Aherne, Gwen"

Dear Ms Wilson

Thank you for attending the GACS open meeting on 19 October and for your questions to the Committee. I would like to check with you that you are content with how I have recorded your questions (see below), as they will be included in the note of the Q&A session which will be published on the GACS website.


With regards to your question on the cost of the Agency’s systematic review of the nutrient content of organic and non-organic foods, I can confirm that the total cost of this research was £120K.

With kind regards

Gwen Aherne
Secretariat to the General Advisory Committee on Science (GACS)
Chief Scientist Team
Food Standards Agency
Aviation House, 125 Kingsway,
London WC2B 6NH

GACS open meeting 19 October – Q&A session

Ms Jennie Wilson had submitted several questions in advance and was invited to present her questions to GACS. Seven of Ms Wilson’s questions related to an article about GM by Professor Colin Blakemore in the Observer in June 2010. Once the Chair clarified that he had written the article in a personal capacity and that his views did not represent those of the Committee, Ms Wilson was content to withdraw these questions. The remaining seven questions from Ms Wilson related to the report from the GACS Sub-group on the review of nutrient content of organic and non-organic foods (meeting paper GACS 6-5). These are reproduced below. In addition to these, Ms Wilson asked at the meeting how much the research had cost.


1. Considering the GACS’s role of providing independent advice on the FSA’s governance and use of science, why has the GACS not advised the FSA that denigrating organic food is not only non-beneficial to health and consumer welfare but smacks of propaganda?

2. And indeed, why is the GACS considering a report on the nutrient content of organic foods at this meeting when nutrition has been passed from the FSA to the Department of Health?

3. Given the scale of the nation’s obesity problem and the economic climate, would it not be more effective to focus on warning consumers about sugary drinks, snacks and boxed breakfast cereals rather than organic whole foods?

4. Why does the FSA have a need to prove that organic food is not more nutritious than non-organic food when not one label or organic product advertisement that I am aware of makes this claim? If there is such a label or product advertisement, would the GACS please advise me of same? And if there is such a label, why does not the GACS recommend that the FSA prove that the label is deceptive, and therefore illegal, rather than making a broad statement that may or may not be true?

5. Why can’t the GACS advise the FSA to take into consideration ancillary matters that are relevant to organic food such as stricter controls over animal husbandry and soil management which are important to many consumers?

6. Why can’t the GACS advise the FSA to take a neutral stance in relation to organic food unless and until some substantiated evidence is produced to prove one way or the other about the nutritional content of organic food in comparison to non-organic food? I would point out that the Report commissioned by and submitted to the FSA in July 2009 concluded that the research was done with an extremely limited evidence base, and further research, especially with more inter-disciplinary approaches, was recommended.

7. Has the GACS become aware of the recent 12 million pound, 4-year EU study on the benefits of organic food being published yet? If so, would the GACS kindly let me know where I can access it?

8. In response to Question 1 Members commented that the Agency was obliged to publish results of research it commissions in light of its policy of transparency and in the interests of consumers. They added that if Ms Wilson felt the research findings had been misinterpreted by the media, the FSA was not the right channel through which to challenge this.

9. In response to Questions 2, 3 & 4, Dr Miller, as Secretariat to the Sub-group, explained why the Agency had undertaken a review of the nutrient content of organic and non-organic foods. He explained that the Agency had been asked by interested stakeholders to revise its advice to consumers on organic food in light of new evidence which they reported as suggesting health benefits of organic food. As a result the Agency decided to commission a systematic review to identify whether overall there was evidence of a difference in nutrient content of organic and non-organic foods.

10. With regard to Question 5 it was noted that animal husbandry and soil management are not within the Agency’s remit.
11. In response to Questions 6 & 7, the Committee’s discussion at Agenda item 7 on the protocol for the systematic review was relevant. Sub-group Members considered that the review had followed good practice. The Sub-Group were satisfied with how the exclusion criteria were applied to the 52,000 papers considered for inclusion in the systematic review. Members noted that having completed a systematic review it is good practice to consider whether the results of new research would significantly alter the balance of evidence.

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