About our committees
The Agency is a science and evidence-based organisation. We have a team of in-house scientists and social scientists to support our policy-making but we also value the advice that we receive from external experts.
The work of the independent committees and working groups that advise the Food Standards Agency helps ensure that the Agency's advice to consumers is always based on robust analysis of the best and most recent scientific evidence.
The Agency is advised by ten committees, comprising more than 140 independent experts who are appointed through open competition. These scientists provide independent advice and challenge to the work presented to them that is fundamental to the Agency’s reputation. Nine of the committees cover specific food and feed related issues such as microbiology, nutrition, social science and toxicology. The tenth – the General Advisory Committee on Science – has a broader, more strategic role for advising on our science and bringing together the work of the other committees.
Each committee has at least one lay member whose role is to challenge the committees to consider the needs of non-specialists and to ensure effective communication of the risk assessment advice. The Agency particularly values the contribution these lay members make because it plays an important role in discharging our core values of putting the consumer first and making our scientific work accessible.
The committees operate to a common set of standards which is set down in the FSA's Review of the Scientific Committees published in 2002. The Agency also expects committee members to adhere to the Universal Ethical Code for Scientists, developed by the Government Chief Scientific Adviser.
The committees have recently drawn up Good Practice Guidelines to show how they work.
Committee meetings are held in open session to increase the visibility and transparency of the committee's work and to enable interested parties to hear the committee's discussions. The presumption is that meetings will be held in open session. However, reserved business sessions may be held in some circumstances. You can find out when meetings are being held and register to attend via the committees' own websites.
Not all scientific issues are referred to the committees. For many issues, Agency scientists undertake much of the routine work themselves. The need for external scrutiny and challenge of that work is decided on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes no external views are sought. In some instances there will be a general consultation with all stakeholders; sometimes a small ad hoc group is convened – this is useful for a very specialist topic. The chairs of the committees are consulted when we need independent advice in a hurry – for example, when there is a food incident and a possible risk to food safety.
A formal opinion from a committee is sought:
- when the advice is fundamental to a policy decision to be taken by the FSA Board
- where information suggests that there might be a risk but this information has not been peer-reviewed
- where an opinion on the balance of evidence is needed; and in areas of developing science where the level of uncertainty is significant
Each committee holds 3-6 meetings per year, and each meeting usually lasts one day. Most meetings are held in London.
In general terms, the FSA asks members to spend time studying the papers in preparation for meetings, participate in the meetings and undertake actions which arise from the discussions. Members may also be asked to consider items by post if advice is needed before the next meeting. The committees often set up sub-groups and in most cases members may elect to join those, as well as identifying additional members with the required expertise. The sub-groups are more informal and often their members are much more involved in preparing reviews/reports.
An important point is that the workload is arranged so that the committee Chair and members focus on the key data. They do not have to look at all of the primary data personally. The Secretariats summarise the data in an unbiased format and make available the key primary literature for members to check, if required.
What do the Chairs do?
The Chairs of the committees, in addition to the work undertaken by all members, may be involved in advising the FSA Chair and Board and may act as spokespeople for the committees when issues become of public interest.