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Feb 2001 Journal

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Sir John Krebs and the FSA

His father, refugee biochemist and Nobel laureate Sir Hans Adolf Krebs (Science Notebook, June 2000), was Professor of Biochemistry at Oxford University. He is John Richard Krebs, born in 1945, Royal Society Research Professor in the Department of Zoology at Oxford University, and recently knighted. Last year he became much more widely known as the first Chairman of the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

How did a research zoologist come to be appointed head of the FSA? Professor Krebs’ scientific background lies in animal behaviour; he has won medals from the Zoological Society and the Linnaean Society, and with his research group is still investigating the connection between declining bird populations and intensive farming. Since 1988, when for two years he was President of the International Society for Behavioural Ecology, Professor Krebs has also acquired considerable experience in managing large scientific organisations. In 1989 he became Director of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Unit of Behavioural Ecology and, in 1994, Chief Executive of the NERC. He was therefore an excellent choice for the difficult job of Chairman of the Food Standards Agency when Parliament established it in April 2000.

The need for such an agency, whose remit is “to protect public health from risks which may arise in connection with the consumption of food, and otherwise to protect the interests of consumers in relation to food”, became paramount after the food scares of the last 20 years: salmonella in eggs, E-coli poisoning outbreaks, and especially BSE. The FSA now runs the Meat Hygiene Service and will set standards for local authority environmental health inspectors. It will also provide advice and information to the public on food safety from farm to fork, as well as on nutrition and diet. Improving the British diet would make a major contribution to reducing our high rates of heart disease and cancer.

Although the Chairman and Board of the FSA will report to Parliament through health ministers, it has been given the unique legal power to publish the advice it gives to government. The move to greater openness is crucial, a response to lessons learnt from too much government secrecy in the past. It will be a challenging task to explain the uncertainties inherent in our scientific knowledge and in the decisions made, and Professor Krebs is aware that the FSA is bound to displease one interest group or another. Another problem is the tendency of the media to run headline scare stories instead of balanced reporting, as in the case of genetically modified food. The core values of the FSA – putting the consumer first, openness and independence – should do much to reassure us.

The great public interest in the FSA was indicated in December when Sir John broadcast on Radio 4’s Any Questions as the non-political member of the panel. To a question about the risks of eating French beef after the discovery of more BSE cases in France, he said that all European states should adopt the same precautions as the UK, a recommendation since adopted by the EU.
Prof Michael Spiro

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