As the UK teeters on the brink of leaving the EU, the responsibility for establishing a trade deal and considering food safety in final Brexit negotiations, weighs heavily on ministers shoulders.
Without a doubt, food safety could diminish if the UK undergoes a hard Brexit. The UK food system is fragile, heavily reliant on EU neighbours for food supply. If we consider the flow of unprocessed foods, the UK supplied less than half (49%) of its unprocessed food in 2016.’ Source: DEFRA (2017).
Impact of Potential New Trade Deals
A no deal withdrawal could result in the UK turning to other countries for food production, to replace imports from the EU. The media has widely speculated that if our Government agrees to a free trade deal with the US, we may face a number of food safety risks here in the UK:
- Chlorine washed chicken - common practice in the US but US chicken has been banned in the EU since 1997 because of this chlorine treatment process.
- Salmonella - eggs imported from the US would have a significantly higher likelihood of containing salmonella than those produced in the EU.
Pesticides - pesticides are more widely used in US agriculture than in the UK and EU. Moreover, the maximum residue levels of pesticides in the US often exceed those permitted in the EU.
Ractopamine - a drug additive widely given to pigs in the US to increase their muscle tissue and reduce fat. In 2009, the European Food Safety Authority concluded there was ‘not enough data to show that it is safe for human consumption at any level’.
Chicken litter - US chickens can be fed waste mixed in with feed. The UK’s experience with BSE (mad cow disease) showed us what can occur when animal wastes are incorporated into animal feeds. A similar outbreak pattern could easily emerge again and would risk UK public health as a result.
Food additives - US food contains a wider range of additives than are permitted in the EU, and at higher levels of usage. For example, potassium bromate and azodicarbonamide are authorised for use in US bread-making as ‘dough improvers’, but deemed unacceptable in the EU.
Food labelling - US food labelling standards provide consumers with far less information than is the case in the EU.
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove, has commented that the Uk will not compromise on animal welfare rules but the future of imported foods is still hanging in the balance.
The Future of Food Safety Legislation
The central UK legislation governing food safety is the Food Safety Act 1990, however further food safety law comes from the EU. Under the terms of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, all existing EU legislation will be preserved in UK law so that “as a general rule, the same rules and laws will apply on the day after the UK leaves the EU as before”. The UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) is working to incorporate EU Food Safety Law directly into UK law.
Transfer of Food Safety Functions
The FSA has identified functions currently carried out at an EU level which may need to be transferred to the UK after the UK leaves the EU, including:
- Pre-market approvals and authorisations for food and feed additives, enzymes, flavourings, genetically-modified food and feed.
- Risk-based standards and controls.
- Information and intelligence sharing systems.
- Rapid response to help stop potentially harmful food reaching UK consumers.
- Third Country Inspections - checks on food coming from outside the EU are currently undertaken by the EU.
The FSA - Changes all food business need to know
It is clear that Brexit means the UK will need a stronger FSA, once reliance on the European Food Safety Authority and other food institutions has ended. However, ministers have been weakening the FSA with budget cuts with no plans to increase its budget! The FSA plans a 2020 programme of change known as ‘Regulating our Future’. This includes the following changes all food businesses need to know:
- Changes to food business enforcement - alongside local authority enforcement, the FSA wants to introduce private companies to undertake UK food safety inspections. An obvious concern with this plan is whether UK food safety standards can be effectively enforced by commercial firms without conflicts of interest.
- Increased enforcement and fixed penalty notices - The FSA is planning to involve private companies in food safety inspections to free up local authority time for increased enforcement activity against poor food business with the intention to implement a fixed penalty notice system for offenders to incentivise improvement.
- Food Businesses bear the costs - The FSA wants food businesses rather than the taxpayer to meet the costs of regulation. The businesses that require the most intervention from the government will bear the highest costs.
- Permits to Trade - The FSA goal is to require all food businesses to hold a permit to trade. This is a long term plan but in the short term, they intend to enhance registration requirements to ensure all new food businesses are captured before they start trading.
- Behaviour and culture assessment- the FSA is considering judging food businesses on other non-food areas of compliance, which would have an impact on the FSA view of their food safety compliance.
- Mandatory Scores on the Doors display - The FSA are working on mandatory display legislation for the Food Hygiene Rating Scheme in England.
- Reduced regulatory burden on top performers - food businesses that invest in system, processes and food safety support will be rewarded with a lower burden from regulation.
Southalls, food safety experts have many years of experience, having seen changes in policy and approach through successive governments. If you would like advice on the robustness of your systems before we enter a post-Brexit world, please book your session with a specialist below.