Most of us eat a meal without ever even really thinking about whether or not the food is safe – we simply assume it is. And most of the time, this is true.
But the reason most of the food we consume is indeed safe is thanks to the thousands of men and women who do the work in this important field.
One agency carrying out work vital to food safety is the independent Food, Environment and Research Agency (Fera). The agency, which was instrumental in identifying horsemeat in the UK food chain, analyses chemical risks and diseases in the food supply chain, among other projects, which include studying the effects of invasive species and pesticides.
But this work may just be threatened as it joins the ranks of public services being sucked up by private companies.
Outsourcing giant Capita is set to take over Fera next week (April 1) and has already announced plans to significantly change how the agency does its work – it will shift its focus to more commercial projects in an effort to double sales.
Leading food policy expert Professor Tim Lang says the move will spell disaster for the agency and food safety as a whole.
“No one will pay for evidence about food and biodiversity, or food and pesticide residues,” Lang told the Independent on Wednesday (March 25).
“There’s no profit in that. In fact, there’s more profit in not having it. There’s an absolute incentive not to have public-interest research about these areas. And that’s a concern.
“Government needs to have optimum advice at its fingertips… Climate change, pesticides – all sorts of things that politicians ought to have good advice on are wrapped up in the daily bread and butter of Fera,” Lang added. “And the Government privatising that basically gets rid of that.”
Fera, which currently employs about 400 scientists in York, made £1.6m in profits as a government agency last year, with £40m in sales. Capita, however, wants to significantly increase profits. It has said it wants the unit to make £700m in sales over the next decade, at £70m a year.
Global contractor Capita, like many giant outsourcing companies seeking entry into public services, has not had an entirely wholesome past.
The National Audit Office (NAO) is currently investigating a contract between Capita and the Cabinet Office to provide civil service training and development training, following allegations from smaller businesses that the contractor had exploited its dominant position at the expense of the suppliers it had been working with.
Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner condemned the impending corporate takeover, saying it was business as usual for the privatisation juggernaut increasingly dominating UK public life.
“This news is yet another example showing why privatisation is always an attack on the public interest,” he said. “What business does big business have in a research agency whose most important work is food safety?”
“Projects vital to public safety are by their very nature not lucrative. And why should they be?” Turner added. “A profit-seeking firm taking over a once public enterprise will undoubtedly abandon public interest projects in favour of commercial projects that bring in the money.
“We’ve seen it with the NHS and other public services – private firms coming in and ruthlessly cutting costs in their endless quest for profits at the expense of the people being served.
But Turner argued that there was a way out of relentless privatisation.
“The ongoing privatisation of every institution we hold dear must stop,” he said. “That’s why voting in the general election in May is so important. We are at a crossroads, and we have the power to decide – do we want a government that will irreversibly accelerate our current, privatise-at-all-costs status quo? Or do we want something different?”