UK Government agency lacks resources to do its basic job

Staffing crises and soaring workloads at a UK Government Agency have forced it to throw up its hands in bureaucratic despair, a bizarre email acknowledgment suggests.

If you have recently written to the UK Food Standards Agency Novel Foods Team, here is the message you’ve probably received: “If your enquiry relates to submitting a novel food dossier, please note that due to current limited resources, the UK is unable to accept any new novel food dossiers for assessment, until further notice. Therefore, if you are interested in submitting a novel food dossier to the EU, we advise you to contact another EU member state, further details can be obtained from the European Commission.” It’s fair to say that this, from a government agency, is a surprising and unusual response – so why have the FSA seemingly given up?

Two main causes come straight to my mind. The austerity measures have had a profound effect on Government administration in the UK, with budget reductions being combined with job losses. The other main reason is that, for many years, since 1997, the UK has been a big favourite in Europe for companies who wished to submit new novel foods applications – around one third of all the applications in Europe were from the UK.

Whether this was because of the efficiency and skill of the FSA in handling the dossiers or simply the nature of the UK market and its innovation, it’s hard to say. But, one thing is certain: the UK seems just tired of carrying the burden – both on staff time and costs – of some EU established procedures and processes.

Novel foods and novel ingredients (i.e. foods that do not have a significant history of consumption within the European Union before 15 May 1997) have to be authorised before they can be placed on the market. Companies must apply to an EU Member State authority, presenting the scientific information and safety assessment report. The national authority allows the marketing of the product if no additional assessment is necessary, and if the Commission and EU countries don’t object.

The existing regulatory framework is being criticised by all involved for being particularly burdensome, lengthy and costly. The European Commission itself recognised that the direct consequence of this is that most EU food businesses – particularly smaller businesses – do not want to develop and put on the market new foods or food ingredients which would fall under the Novel Food process. The EU is also much criticized at World Trade Organization level by outside countries which consider that the Novel Food authorisation is a barrier to trade and prevents EU market access to foods which have a long history of safe food use in their country of origin. Bang on; that’s precisely how it works.

On a more positive note the European Commission has recently adopted a proposal for a new Regulation on novel foods. The objective is to simplify and streamline the regulatory process, thus reducing the administrative burden and improving the competitiveness of the European food industry. The proposal introduces a centralised EU-level procedure for the assessment and authorisation of novel foods – all applications will have to be submitted to the Commission. It is also worth noting that the current system of individual authorisation is replaced by generic authorisations. This will avoid the re-submission of new applications by other companies for the same novel food.

The proposed Regulation is the EU’s second attempt at reforming the novel foods regime in the EU. The Commission’ first proposal from 2008 failed due to a disagreement between the European Parliament and the Council regarding specific rules on food from cloned animals. As a result, the Commission has recently also published proposals banning the sale of food from cloned animals.

The proposed Regulation will be discussed and is expected to be further amended by the European Parliament and the Council following the so-called ordinary legislative procedure – meaning it is now time for industry to engage with this. Failure to do so means that industry itself may end up footing the bill for the new system and, as the FSA can tell you, authorising novel food products is neither a cheap nor easy process.

Chris Whitehouse