11th January 2021

CPPD Module 19: Food Standards

This module will examine the key issues that trading standards professionals need to be aware of as the UK extricates itself from EU-based food standards legislation.

By David Pickering
CTSI Lead Officer for Food Standards

The UK’s exit from the EU under a so-called ‘cliff edge’ scenario could add significant costs to the food industry, the food regulation system (particularly at UK ports of entry) and ultimately to the UK consumer. In such a scenario, there is also a high level of uncertainty about the implications of moving to World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules.

It is possible that it could take several years for the UK to move to full recognition within the WTO system, meaning a period of limbo and yet more uncertainty for the food industry; there could also be extensive changes for the food industry, standards, science and research capability, as well as for UK
food inspection arrangements.

Altered expectations

There may also be a need for acceptance by the UK consumer of food that does not meet expectations developed over many years of EU membership in terms of quality, composition, hygiene and standards of production. There are some differences between UK food standards (legislation and enforcement) and those of other countries. As a result of these different approaches, there could be significant public acceptance issues among UK consumers, even if concerns are not founded in evidence or are based on historic trade disputes and barriers between the EU and other nations. Therefore, we expect society to demand high-quality interventions and control services post-EU Exit that ensure the food we eat is what it says it is.

There are additional challenges facing exporters to EU countries depending upon the type of deal that is achieved. A deal where there is a system of harmonised controls will continue to see trade across a single border but not without continuing EU checks of the UK regulatory system. Audits by EU bodies (such as the Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety (DG SANTE)) will still be necessary, and acceptance of EU standards will still require systems to be in place to ensure these are complied with.

Northern Ireland protocol

The position with regard to many of the practical implications of the Northern Ireland protocol are still unclear, as although Northern Ireland remains within the scope of the EU legal framework the potential impact on businesses remains confused.

A deal in which we effectively become a ‘third country’ could lead to us having to comply with all current EU standards, still be subject to more stringent EU audits and missions, and require us to have a health certification system in place. This is an area where lack of resources in available certifying staff may become an issue. The consequences of any food scares or incidents may lead the EU to impose emergency controls upon the UK with increased costs for compliance, potential rejected consignments and damage to reputations and delays in clearance.

For imports, where there is no such harmonised deal, the UK would be free to determine its own imports control system. However, it would be in the interests of the UK to have an effective and robust system in place, to minimise the risk from food scares and incidents.

Challenges would include implementation of IT systems (for example, to replace the Trade Control and Expert System (TRACES)) approval processes for food establishments in EU and other third countries (for example, inspection of premises, certification of consignments and auditing of other national food inspection bodies) and training programmes both for UK inspectors, businesses and representatives from exporting countries as to how to meet UK standards.

A bespoke system could offer the UK a more risk-based system that could be more targeted than the blanket-type policy which is arguably the approach of the EU at the moment (for example, for products of animal origin). However, implementation of any new standards will require the necessary resources to support these.

Future food policy

Staying as close as possible to EU food standards will help deal with issues of cost, safety, quality, certainty, consumer confidence and smoother trade relationships. Equivalence of UK systems could be assured by
means of any transitional or long-term EU trade arrangement.

A further opportunity will be for the UK to establish a new Food Act that clearly sets out the UK’s vision for better food, farming and fishing, helping to frame current and future decision-making. However, such a vision is hindered by two particular factors.

The first is that devolution of key powers from Westminster to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland presents particular challenges in respect of EU Exit, and concerns remain in regard to the lack of both public and governmental awareness of these. Food standards is a matter that is devolved to all the respective administrations.

The second is the spreading of central government responsibility in England for food standards and food fraud-related issues across three organisations – the Food Standards Agency (FSA), the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) – has exacerbated the lack of a joined-up approach to the issues.

We also currently have a situation in which EU regulations are enforceable in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but not England. Neither the Westminster government nor the FSA can unilaterally make decisions in respect of food standards and safety systems and processes; it must secure the agreement of the devolved administrations, and this builds in additional levels of complexity.

Provision of EU regulatory functions

Working within the EU, the UK has developed its approaches to food standards, consumer protection, animal welfare, pesticide and farm antibiotics control, international policing of food fraud, and much more. As the UK leaves the EU there is likely to be intense pressure from political forces and new trading partners to work to other standards; most notably including those agreed globally by the WTO reference body, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)/World Health Organisation (WHO) Codex Alimentarius Commission (of which the UK and EU are both members).

Threats and opportunities

Currently, many non-EU trading nations criticise the EU for setting standards that diverge from those which are globally agreed and claim that they are non-tariff trade barriers. As the EU is unlikely to rapidly align with globally agreed standards in a short space of time, the UK government will be left with decisions to make on which standards to apply in order to trade most effectively.

However, this is not a binary choice. The UK could have different standards in play for different markets following other international models – for example, the US ‘non-hormone treated cattle program’ –  that meet EU import requirements in a segregated supply chain. It is important that the government ensures that all standards applied post-EU Exit are based on the best scientific evidence and risk assessment in order to afford the UK population and trading partners assurance of high levels of protection.

The UK’s regained sovereignty could also be used as a transformational opportunity for the UK to show global leadership by adopting policies that set us on a path towards an increasingly sustainable food future. The UK’s food system could be governed in a way that meets ambitions and international obligations for ending hunger and tackling climate change, achieving UN sustainable development goals, promoting health and wellbeing, as well as supporting diverse food producers at all stages of the supply chain, on whose skills and livelihoods we all depend. It is important that UK trade policy should support a positive vision.

It is imperative that the UK government ensures effective national and international incident management liaison measures are in place for consumer goods and food, as currently covered by CE marking of products and systems such as the EU Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF).

It is also very important that the UK sets how the roles played by EU bodies such as European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Commission are fulfilled. As an example, EFSA approve health and nutrition claims for use with foods, and this process is under question for the UK post-EU Exit (EFSA have assessed thousands of claims since the regulation came into force). The FSA have been recruiting expert panels for various functions currently carried out by EFSA but how they will work has not been outlined publicly.

For food, good regulation is vital for standards, public health, quality and consumer confidence; helping to avoid the frequent scandals and disease outbreaks that too easily undermine the food industry and consumer confidence. The consumer price of food is of course important, but a race to agree trade deals only on the basis of reducing food prices will be counterproductive.

Visit tradingstandards.uk/cppdtest to complete the question and answer section of this module.


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