Brexit: What prospects for the food and feed safety system in the UK?

If there is one thing the EU is notorious for and may be proud of, it is the system it has put in place to ensure the food and drink that gets on our tables is of the highest possible quality. Under current EU rules, set out in Regulation (EC) 178/2002 of 28 January 2002, the food safety system in the EU rests on a process of risk analysis which consists of three interconnected components: risk assessment, risk management and risk communication.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), based in Italian city of Parma, carries out the risk assessment, providing independent scientific advice and opinions on potential threats in the food chain as well as technical support for the EU’s policies and legislation. While EFSA is also responsible for risk communication, the European Commission was entrusted, together with the European Parliament and Member State competent authorities, with risk management functions.

Until now, the UK has been part of this system, but what is next after Brexit?

These EU bodies will no longer formally perform those functions on behalf of the UK once the country leaves the EU and the UK will, therefore, be responsible for decisions and legislation relating to food and feed safety. To help prepare for this and maintain the highest possible standards of food and feed safety at national level, UK Ministers proposed corrections to provide suitable replacement for the risk management and risk assessment functions and transfer them to appropriate national authorities.

Last month, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) – the UK equivalent to EFSA – launched a public consultation to seek views of businesses, consumers, other stakeholders and the wider public as to the corrections ministers propose to make under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 (EUWA) to retained EU law relating to food and animal feed safety and hygiene. Those corrections, which will be made by way of statutory instruments that are currently under preparation and will themselves be subject to review and approval by the UK Parliament, will essentially concern the functions today performed by certain EU bodies and institutions to ensure a high level of health protection in the EU.

In particular, it is proposed that the FSA will remain responsible for both risk assessment and risk communication, with Food Standards Scotland (FSS) performing a similar function in Scotland. It is also envisioned that the relevant Ministers across the UK will be vested with food and feed safety risk management functions. In practice, this means that while the FSA and FSS will most likely continue to carry out food safety related tasks such as official controls and national level risk assessments and ensure the interactive exchange of information and opinions throughout the risk analysis process, Government Ministers will take over the responsibility for taking food safety risk management decisions.

In this context, and although Ministers already have a range of powers to take routine decisions, some within the industry fear that UK Ministers will not have the required level of technical knowledge and competence to deal with technical food safety issues and take complex decisions on, e.g., the authorisation of genetically modified food and feed, novel food, food additives, food enzymes and flavourings, or the maximum permitted levels of undesirable substances from the environment in food. Purportedly, this would also have the effect of slowing down the decision-making process and authorisation procedures for regulated products and food ingredients.

This is even more worrying given that the legislative framework for food and feed safety issues is currently devolved and discussions are still ongoing as to whether or not such issues should be subject to legislative common framework arrangements. In the absence of harmonised risk management measures across the UK, there is, indeed, a danger that regulatory gaps would emerge between the Devolved Administrations, which could, in turn, create unequal conditions of competition for businesses.

Under these circumstances, it is to be hoped that a common approach will be taken to ensuring food safety in the UK and that the FSA and FSS will both manage to secure greater power, within a governance framework that provide ministerial oversight.

Businesses can still make their voice heard – if you’d like to know more, do get in touch.