Public bodies are in the firing line and the Food Standards Agency has been affected. But as Matt Byrne reports, legal director Rod Ainsworth is even more focused on food safety
It has been quite a year for Rod Ainsworth, director of legal services at the Food Standards Agency (FSA). He joined the government agency in April, the day before the general
election was called and two months before press reports appeared claiming the agency was about to be scrapped.
“The reports of the FSA’s demise were a slight exaggeration, in the Mark Twain sense,” jokes Ainsworth.
It is hardly stretching the bounds of credibility to believe that the FSA, a body Ainsworth stoutly describes as a “non-ministerial department” rather than a quango, would bite the dust in the current climate.
But Ainsworth says that, instead of its demise, a portion of the agency’s work will be divided between the Department of Health (DoH) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
“There’s nothing new in Whitehall about shifting responsibilities,” admits Ainsworth.
Indeed, in July the Government confirmed its intention to retain the FSA with a renewed focus on food safety. The DoH will become responsible for nutrition policy in England, while Defra will take on responsibility for various types of labelling, including for food.
The FSA was created in 2000 by the Food Standards Act 1999 in the aftermath of the BSE crisis. Its remit was to protect the public’s health and consumer interests in relation to food.
Ainsworth’s team is split into two, one arm handling advisory matters and dealing primarily with the application of European food law and the other side dealing with enforcement.
The team’s reduced remit has seen it downsize the legal team, with the loss of two people in the past few months. But its current workload means it is unlikely to be cutting its headcount significantly in the immediate future.
It uses a raft of external firms for a variety of matters, including Clarke Willmott for English financial recovery work.
“There’s also a certain amount of corporate and commercial work, such as employment, for some of which we use the Treasury Solicitor,” adds Ainsworth.
One of the FSA’s current major initiatives is the Food Hygiene Rating Scheme (FHRS), which it formally launched last Tuesday (30 November) at an event at the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent.
The FHRS has been designed by the FSA to help consumers choose where to eat out or shop for food with the confidence that what they are buying is safe.
All 22 local authorities in Wales began rolling out the scheme from 1 October, while across England ’early adopter’ local authorities are planning to launch the scheme in the South West, East and South East regions.
“We worked on developing the legal framework for the scheme,” says Ainsworth. “We’re pretty confident it’s going to snowball.”
Ainsworth has practised as a solicitor since 1981, becoming a partner at Jacques & Lewis in 1986, the firm which became the London end of Eversheds in 1995.
Prior to joining the FSA Ainsworth was group legal director for national housing association Affinity Sutton, a position he had held since 2006. The lawyer has also worked for the London boroughs of Harrow and Brent.
“I’ve spent most of my life acting on one side or other of the public sector,” says Ainsworth.
He says his current home is marked by the passion the staff have about their agency’s role in protecting the public’s health.
“That washes through everything here,” stresses Ainsworth.
It is also distinguished by the mix of people the FSA has on its books.
“I’ve never worked with so many people with PhDs,” he jokes.
And then there is the police. Or more precisely, the former police officers who come into the equation with the FSA’s enforcement activities.
“We have responsibility for enforcing food hygiene, in particular with regard to meat preparation,” says Ainsworth. “We have staff in every slaughterhouse – an official vet from the agency who’s physically present when animals are being killed.”
It seems counterintuitive, but Ainsworth says the vets are there to ensure the animals’ “good health” both before and after being slaughtered. What he means, of course, is that the quality of the meat is up to scratch.
“We have a team of six investigators, all retired police officers, who oversee animal welfare,” adds Ainsworth. “Where we find examples of behaviour contrary to regulations we have the power to prosecute through magistrates courts. The biggest postbag our chief executive gets is letters about ensuring animals are properly treated.”
Name: Rod Ainsworth
Organisation: Food Standards Agency (FSA)
Position: Director of legal services
Reporting to: Chief executive Tim Smith
Annual budget: £139m
Annual legal spend:£1.3m
Legal capability:14 (including investigation staff)
Main law firms:Clarke Willmott