On 20 March 1996, UK government ministers reluctantly acknowledged that consuming BSE-contaminated beef products had almost certainly resulted in the emergence of a novel human illness, which was and remains untreatable and invariably fatal. A similar crisis over BSE erupted in Continental European countries at the turn of the century. Those crises propelled the UK and EU authorities to reform their food safety policy-making systems.
When the reform proposals emerged, the authorities claimed that in the future food safety problems would be avoided because the reforms would correct two key faults that characterised the old system. Firstly, responsibility for protecting consumers and public health would be taken away from departments with responsibility for promoting the commercial interests of the food and/or farming industries, and would be re-located in departments responsible for public health and/or consumer protection. Secondly, the reforms were supposed in ensure the separation of the science of food safety from any and all policy considerations. In the prevailing idiom: the science of risk assessment would be entirely independent of, and uncontaminated by, risk management policy considerations.
Several steps in those directions were taken in the UK, when the Food Standards Agency was established in 2000, and at the European level when the European Food Safety Authority was created in 2002. More recently, however, several developments in the UK have undermined much of the earlier progress, while at the EU level some progressive initiatives are being proposed, they have yet to be implemented. The discussion will outline the changes that have taken place, and evaluate their implications for consumer protection and public health.