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Food we can trust - making it happen: Address to the Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum

Transcript of FSA Chief Executive Emily Miles' address to the Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum.

FSA Chief Executive Emily Miles yesterday called on government, private sector, and civil society to work closer together to address the challenges facing the food system. She was speaking to the Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum seminar: Developing a new National Food Strategy for England. Transcript of the speech as follows:


Henry Dimbleby, who heads up the National Food Strategy, outlined three systemic challenges for the food system:

  • ensuring food makes us well not sick; 
  • that food protects the planet, and doesn’t degrade it; and 
  • that food is available and affordable for everyone.

Today I want to argue that obesity, supply shocks, and environmental degradation require Government to think fundamentally differently about our roles, how we work together, how we work with the private sector and civil society, and how we all attend to the consumer interest. 

I have been the Chief Executive of the FSA for nine months. I have not spent my career in food; I have spent 20 years in Government administration, getting things done in complex situations: Brexit and no deal preparedness for Defra; policing for Home Office; and Asylum and immigration in Home Office, Number 10 and Cabinet Office. 

I offer these comments on food strategy, a subject that goes wider than the FSA’s remit, because I’ve watched and been part of successes, and failures, in Government and I have learnt a lot from both. 

For those of you that do not know much about the FSA, it is a non-ministerial Government Department, so without a Secretary of State, but with an independent Board, set up in 2000 to prevent a BSE crisis ever happening again. That crisis came about because the consumer interest had come second to both economic and political interests; ultimately to the detriment of public trust in food. We work in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and closely with colleagues in Food Standards Scotland. Public health is at the core of our mission, though our statutory remit asks us also to look at ‘other consumer interests in food’. 

The learning from COVID-19

COVID-19 has acted as a barium meal for the food system, showing us where the strengths are and highlighting the defects.

What have we learnt?

  • Supply and food safety have been maintained in difficult circumstances. 
  • Governments and local government across the UK moved quickly to change policies and practices to help keep food on shelves.
  • The private sector pivoted from supplying wholesale and catering, to supplying retail.
  • Government, local government, the private sector and civil society worked at great speed to give priority access to vulnerable consumers to food parcels and supermarket slots.

Many of the things I saw in those weeks in March and April moved me as a civil servant. But there were instances where I think we could have done better. 

Sometimes it took precious time to join up because responsibilities sat across all UK Governments and several Government departments (late guidance, labelling easements). 

We have not delivered for all consumers. The FSA’s COVID-19 consumer tracker shows that one in six of us have cut meals or portion sizes because of worries about money since the end of March.

I don’t think we yet know if diets improved or got worse. If environmentally sustainable practices were promoted rather than ignored. And if residual food poverty will be uncomfortably endemic in the UK for some time. Those long-term concerns deserved consideration alongside the urgent need to get food on people’s plates. 

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