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VEGA News Item

 
Letter to the FSA's Head of Consumer Branch - 10/12/2003
 
VEGA reminds the FSA that their "S" is for Standards as well as Safety
Your letter reveals persistence of confusions that we have tried on several occasions to clarify with the FSA and with its appreciation and collaboration with NGOs and registered charities with well-founded research activities. Responses drawn by the Cabinet Office for commentaries on policies for farming and food intended for what came to be called the Curry Commission offer a guide to organisations who "know their onions" and need encouragement, and differ from others with a superficial and trite understanding of current scares and (to them) revelations. The polarisations over organic and GM illustrate this point.

We have been involved with FSA-type matters since long before Professor James was called to draw up plans for a new Agency and revision of the purview of the MAFF. Our Green Plan, launched in 1976 with a press-conference, was refreshed entirely on "healthy" food and beverages – with no stinting on interpretations of 5-plus portions of fruit and veg – that derived from crops British farmers could grow. The general message embraced issues of farming, food, health and the land. We were, therefore, exercised as the FSA’s mission was enacted to ensure that the S stood for Standards rather than just Safety (as it is in other countries). The plough-to-plate, stable-to-table, compost-to-comestible connections were attractive; however, one of our reasons for a special meeting with FSA (by analogy with Muslim interests representing a group numbering about the same as those calling themselves vegetarians but considerably smaller than consumers best described now as meat-reducers and dairy-frees) was our disappointment that fire-brigade activity at the end of the food chain had engaged the FSA disproportionately over deeper matters (such as those rehearsed in submissions to the Curry Commission) to do with food production, distribution, marketing and sale. An undue emphasis on (apparent) cheapness and quantity rather than the values of good husbandry, wholesomeness and thrift, has been emerging; and enterprise in utilising beneficial opportunities in farming and technology has been retarded.

The range of our research capabilities and data-bank has enabled us to contribute to consultations and collaborations with government bodies and agencies, including the FSA, DEFRA, DoH and DoTI. We are also in frequent contact with industry and marketing concerns and thus with farmers, veterinarians, nutritionists, doctors and animal welfarists, and we have provided or collaborated with expert witnesses, notably for the defence in the McLibel Case.

Our wish to further this service makes another reason for a meeting with the FSA; for one thing, we seek collation of protocols and intentions and results of appropriate research projects (especially epidemiology) running in the UK. Our Trustees have provided assistance with some of such endeavours in connection with the health and welfare of people and animals, as well as in alerting consumers with certain aversions (religious, allergy or food intolerance on biological or ethical grounds). We note, at last, evidence of action by the FSA and a big supermarket on use of certain caramels (E150), which are objectionable as cosmetic additives associated with ugly experimentation on animals and with doubts over their inclusion in "safe" foods and beverages, especially for children and pets.

We are represented in many consultations and conferences, but are hampered because we lack easy access to libraries and IT, as if we were researchers in a university department, for example. We exploit memberships of learned societies and their facilities, as well as what we can obtain on limited funds off our own access to the Net. This lack (common to other active groups involved with the FSA) prompts another reason for a special meeting in the hope that beneficial accreditations and accesses could be set up, while maintaining the independence that our Trust Deed and the Charity Commission insist on. Inspection of our website (www.vegaresearch.org) offers information on some of our activities. Our own database of over 9,000 relevant key-worded articles and reports can be used without fee by any seekers for appropriate material not immediately available by other means.

We have consulted staff in the library in Aviation House. It does not offer much beyond the material kept at the Royal Society of Medicine and the Royal Society of Chemistry. The former is open for longer hours and on Saturdays. Charges at all of these libraries are 10p for each A4 photocopy. I was told (can this be true?) that visitors to the FSA library may not use the canteen in the building for refreshments (and a useful insight into precept and practice within the FSA head office). Attendance at recent FSA events indicates that testimony shared with us is taking effect on the coffee-tables at least.

Definition of the word vegetarian has become so blurred and confusing that you would be overwhelmed with consumer representatives bearing the name if you offered them all a place; almost every religious denomination has a veggie group (another just started a few weeks ago) and there are ethnic versions (which have special diet-and-health interests to which we give advice in English as well as other languages). There is (or was) a Vegans against Nazis group. The Vegetarian Society has strong commercial interests in selling its symbol and leasing its logo, in practices we, and other campaigning organisations, find disagreeable; it has also run into difficulties with the Charity Commission that appear to constrain its critical abilities and permit production and labelling of "approved" foods like those that incur rebukes from, for example, the Food Commission and us. They bestow approbations for fees on commodities that the Vegan Society abominates, if not loudly enough. We are not convinced that their guidelines are competently policed (even to the standards set by, say, the Soil Association and RSPCA).

The British Composition of Food Tables are now less accessible in many respects than USDAs. Hard copies of the British Tables and updates cost a lot and reference on-line is limited for us to the allowance through a individual membership of the Royal Society of Chemistry; for browsing, one of us has to travel to the RSM in London. This is hard luck as well; some of the data are our own, given some years ago to MAFF. We have wanted to warn the FSA of significant omissions and shortcoming in the Tables; they are lacking in values for vitamin D and iodine, for instance, which are significant for veggies and for others who overlook differences such as the fortification with vitamin D of cow-milk in the USA, but not in the UK, which lies in latitudes north of the USA. More salt is used iodised in the USA than in the UK. Development of policies on fortification and supplementation founders on these difficulties, which crop up in European comparisons, too. We wish to urge the FSA to arrange free access to the British Tables, via their own website or DEFRA’s or the Stationery Office’s. Like some of the matters we raise now, the difficulties must be common and bigger for commentators and researchers working for NGOs outside London.

Excitement over the Atkins diet and the dangers in obesity and syndrome X, as well as the possibility of statins sold OTC like aspirins, have overshadowed the promise in Portfolio cuisines first recommended last year in the medical press. Portfolio diets embody current dietary recommendations for reducing obesity and resort to statin drugs. They are actually vegetarian, although not promoted as such. American doctors have dismissed them as admirable but impracticable as alternatives to partially reformed diets with drugs. We have already interested a British cookery writer in a project to exploit the potential and we would like to recruit resources from the FSA to the venture. We note, in passing, the dearth of information of advice and advocacy in the UK for dietary applications of seaweeds (e.g. as vegetables) and of fungi (e.g. mushrooms).

VEGA is part of a Neighbourhood Watch scheme, in which volunteers augment the local council’s attempts at tidying streets and public places. This entails a journey by a volunteer round the area equipped with a black bag and a grabber (these may be bought cheaply at shops such as Age Concern). There is strong anecdotal evidence in VEGA’s suburban environs of the baleful litter of baleful junk foods and beverages and of takeaways eaten on the hoof. These offences to the environment emphasise the dire influence of cheap convenience foods eaten to excess. When is FSA going to follow examples from regulations on smoking etc., e.g. by discouraging consumption and use - for several reasons - in public vehicles and streets, etc. and while driving cars, lorries etc.; correspondingly, encourage provision of places for consumption of good food bought on site or bought elsewhere and brought from home; and to exercise the children away from the goggle box. Let us encourage parents to set their charges loose with a grabber to gather up and dispose of neighbourhood litter. And the evidence is strong enough to whack an environmental and carbon tax on the purveyors of junk-foods and their containers and wrappings. Standards in food and health contexts suffer from every sign of fecklessness from the flapping fertilizer bags, derelict buildings and machinery, as well as dumped rubbish from overstocked farms, to the litter bestrewing our streets and open and public places. We urge the FSA to redress this wantonness by redoubled education and debate.

On one or two relevant occasions we have trailed the possibilities of "gut slots" on BBC programmes, such as Radio 4, that broadcast God slots; or the scope of the Archers programme could be extended. Some precedents exist for such publicity in the Radio Doctor’s broadcasts in WW2 and contributions in Jimmy Young’s programmes by the then editor of the Grocer. Such programmes should be lively with plenty of variety and with messages at a demotic level, recognising that the efforts of the food industry, allied with the providers of fuel and catering appliances, are stimulating consumption while the general benefit would derive from eating less, with increased choice now a lesser need. At present, food programmes are dominated by hacks and celebrities, offering little more critical, comprehensive and practical than advertorial. The desired broadcasts must be entertaining and varied and not seem channels just for the FSA and DEFRA – indeed, critical appraisals of such agencies should be welcomed by producers cultivating a fertile crop of interests in their programmes.

Thank you for the invitations in your letter of 06 August 2003. We would be glad to receive reports and agendas of the Consumer Committee, but we think full participation of 4 veggie representatives, notwithstanding our reservations over their research, independence and competence, is excessive (however, we have not a copy of your list of 300 or so representatives; we would like a copy, please).

We hope we have now furnished sufficient evidence to convince the FSA over the case for a special meeting. We shall continue with attendances and participation in relevant public and stakeholder sessions of the FSA, DEFRA etc., and deal with the many documents for consultation that we are sent. Much of such correspondence is posted on our website.

Good wishes

Alan Long
Hon Research adviser  
 
 

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