Saturday, October 11, 2008

Regulatory independance ?? FSA (UK), FSANZ, FDA, AVA...

I had a nice time googling all the food regulatory agencies....having had a bit of time on my hands this weekend.

Did you know that in the UK and Australia-NZ, food regulation is carried out by agencies which are stand alone independent agencies?

In the UK, it's called the Food Standards Agency, an independent Government department which was set up by an Act of Parliament in 2000 to protect the public's health and consumer interests in relation to food. The FSA functions independently and does not report to any Minster. Rather, it reports directly to Parliament. It is free to publish any advice it issues.

Australia and New Zealand have a joint agency called Food Standards Australia New Zealand. The FSANZ is an independent statutory agency established by the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Act 1991. It reports to a 12 member Board, and the Parliamentary Secretary takes executive responsibility of the agency. The policy and guidelines are set by a joint Ministerial Council. Once the Ministerial Council has decided on policy guidelines, these will be published and the FSANZ will automatically implement them.

The US FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has had a much longer history and developed originally as a regulatory agency concerned about food adulteration and contamination. It was brought into existence in 1906 with the passage of the Federal Food and Drugs Act. Ironically, the problems that gave birth to the FDA are the very same kind of problems that are afflicting China at the moment. The FDA is an agency within the Public Health Service, which in turn is a part of the Department of Health and Human Services.

In contrast to these agencies, our own AVA (Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority) comes from a backdrop of being a Primary Production Department, with responsibilities for developing and regulating the local farming and fishing industry. Then in 2002, the Food Control Division of the Ministry of Environment moved over into the AVA.

Food regulation in Singapore, historically,...and strangely, has always been handled as an environmental as compared to a health concern. I cannot help but wonder if this is the correct or optimal situation. Unlike other developed countries where food regulation is an independent agency, food regulation in Singapore, is part of the AVA, an agency concerned not only with food safety, but also health and safety of plants and animals as well as with agricultural trade. I am always worried about situations where human health and safety concerns and tempered by concerns about trade and commerce. In this instance, can regulatory decisions by AVA about food safety be made objectively and transparently? Are there enough safe guards to ensure officers can act without conflicts of interest?

I don't mean to be targeting our AVA in my posts, but the unfolding melamine scandal has put the AVA under some limelight, and maybe it's about time we had a closer look had how regulatory decisions are made in Singapore.


kimrennin said...

Effective independence means independence from forces that undermine the purpose of regulation. What are these forces that block alignment of private behavior with public interest? At minimum, a regulator must be independent of financial or employment inducements. But there is more. A regulator's decisionmaking should be independent of arguments that are unverifiable.
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gigomole said...

The problem here in Singapore, is that most of our regulatory agencies are not that independent of other considerations, mostly trade or economically related. I don't think it is just the AVA. Other regulatory agencies all have as part of their mandate, some promotional mission. Internally, regulators cannot function independently as they need to keep one eye on the promotional objectives of the organization.