Confusion surrounds the future of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) after reports that the Government was preparing to scrap the health body, with all "arms length bodies" under review as part of its cost cutting.
The FSA, which employs 2,000 staff and has an annual budget of £135m, is the non-ministerial body for the protection of the public's health and consumer interests in relation to food. It deals with issues including the Scores on the Doors food hygiene rating scheme as well as calorie menu labelling and a potential ban on transfats.
It is believed that Andrew Lansley, the health secretary, plans to abolish the FSA as part of an NHS reform and a drive to cut the number of quangos. Under the proposal the FSA duties would be transferred to the Department for Health and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
The Department of Health said that no decision has been made regarding the future of the FSA and that it would be reviewed in the autumn.
However, the stalling of the decision leaves hospitality operators in limbo and has sparked a mixed reaction among industry bodies.
Graham Jukes, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH), said a potential scrap of the FSA represented a major setback for food safety and consumer protection.
"The FSA has supported environmental health improvements on the ground and we feel this partnership has greatly improved public health," he said. "We would challenge the Government to reassure consumers and businesses that whatever they put in the place of the FSA will offer an equal measure of consumer protection."
Andrew Burnham, Labour's health spokesman, added: "Getting rid of the FSA is the latest in a number of worrying steps that show Andrew Lansley caving in to the food industry. It does raise the question whether the health secretary wants to protect the public health or promote food companies."
However, the British Hospitality Association (BHA) called for caution. "As there has been no official announcement, or any detail, it's difficult to forecast the impact of the move on the hospitality industry," a spokesman said.
"The BHA supported the FSA when it was concerned mainly with the probity of food, but we have been concerned, latterly, at its more regulatory approach because it's a non-elected body."
By Kerstin Kühn
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