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As the UK’s trading relationship with Europe changes following the Brexit vote, how will food standards be affected?

On 19 July 2017 the Food Standards Agency (FSA) published its paper on how it is proposing to regulate the food sector in the future, following 18 months of discussions and consultation. ‘Regulating Our Future – Why Food Regulation Needs to Change and How We are Going to do it’ sets out the blueprint that is intended to see the landscape for food regulation “fully reformed” in 2020. In announcing this publication, FSA chair Heather Hancock has expressed how regulation needs to keep up with the pace of change in the global food economy and is calling for a more modern, flexible and responsive system.  

Press reports earlier this year fuelled concerns that following Brexit the UK would have to forge greater trade links with countries which have relatively loose rules on food safety standards. Reports spread concerns that trade deals, with for example the US, would see the UK market flooded with chlorine-washed, hormone-treated and drug-laced meat or milk with twice the EU permitted count of white blood cells. The Parma-based European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has restricted US imports into Europe where these practices or conflicting standards have been a concern, despite the US arguing that these restrictions were unscientific in their basis. Conflicting US standards have also reportedly extended to Scottish whisky production, with the US pushing for fewer rules on alcohol production. In trying to placate those expressing concerns about what Brexit will mean for food standards and also the associated economic effects for UK food producers, the Government has indicated its commitment to ensuring that there is a level playing field but to our standards. 

Notwithstanding this background of controversy and concern, it seems that Brexit was not the key driver behind this desire for change, but it has added further impetus insofar as implementation is concerned. Addressing the risks in the current approach is seen to be “essential”, and this needs to be a proactive approach rather than waiting for a crisis to develop.

The FSA is to strengthen its remit over all of the bodies involved in the inspection of food businesses, and is looking to police and enforce “stringent and robust standards” which will help businesses fulfil their responsibility to produce safe and correctly described food. At the same time, the regulator wants to improve its relationships with the industry and bring more clarity and commerciality into its decision-making process.

The key areas of reform are:

  • An enhanced system of registration for all food businesses, with more information provided about those businesses so that proportionate and risk-based controls can be applied to them. New technology and data will help form part of this transformation. This will also require more effective ‘segmentation’ of the businesses to enable this process. A “hostile environment” will be created for those businesses which do not proactively register.
  • Reducing the administrative burden for the compliant businesses. Those with a good history of compliance will face a lower burden of regulation on the basis that the information shared with the FSA will include past performance. It is intended that this approach will free up local resources to target the businesses presenting the greatest risk to public health. 
  • The tried and trusted ‘Food Hygiene Rating Scheme’ will remain and display of ratings will be mandatory throughout the UK.
  • Bringing effective enforcement action against those who fail to fulfil their obligations. 

It may be the case that until the FSA is up to speed with its desired goals, the UK will still look to fall under the remit of the European Union’s food safety regime at least in part after the 2019 deadline for Britain’s departure. Reports suggest that there are fears that we do not currently have the expertise or the infrastructure in place to enable our severance from the European regulatory structure.

Perhaps this forms part of a wider issue, as according to House of Commons research, the UK could eventually import up to 19,000 European rules. Similarly, the CBI has estimated that the UK may have to set up 34 new regulatory agencies in order to replace the European equivalents in a number of areas.

One certain consequence of Brexit will be the amount of legislative change required within a relatively short space of time with the emergence of new UK-based regulators in a number of different sectors. Food producers will not be the only ones affected by the need for regulatory change with utilities, road haulage, aviation carriage and broadcasting predicted to be key areas for change.

Published: 09 November 2017

Focus on Manufacturing - Edition 6

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