by Sue Davies, Chief Policy Adviser, Which?
Our food system, food controls and food choices have been closely inter-twined with our relationship with the EU for decades. With that now all set to change, it is essential that we ensure an outcome that has consumers’ interests at its heart. That means making sure that we make the most of the potential opportunities, while carefully identifying and addressing the many risks to consumer protection that are likely to emerge.
Firstly, Brexit means we need to re-think our approach to food and farming policy. We won’t be part of the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy and tied to the model it encourages and subsidises. Successive attempts at reform have meant a stronger environmental focus, but despite taking up a significant chunk of the EU budget, there has been little integration with broader health and consumer interests.
Brexit could therefore be the long-awaited prompt for a truly integrated food policy. The issues posed by leaving the EU come at a time when our food system is already facing major challenges – from obesity to the threat of climate change. Successive reviews – whether Foresight or the recent focus on a 25 year food and farming plan – have failed to ensure a joined up approach across government. Despite this policy fragmentation and a recent unambitious obesity plan, it is to be hoped that rather than focusing solely on short term issues, the model that we adopt can reconcile health, sustainability, security, growth, welfare and consumer acceptability goals. It should be seen as a chance to shift to a healthier and more sustainable system.
The food choices available to us and the information that we can base them on are also largely determined by the EU’s legislative framework. From what organic means to the evidence that needs to be provided and assessed before new technologies can make it on to the market, the EU has shaped the standards within which the food industry operates. While there are some gaps and areas that can be improved, it generally serves consumers well. Caution is therefore needed to ensure that we don’t sacrifice important protections consumers have come to expect. This would not only be devastating for consumer confidence, but also for the industry that relies on it.
The post-Brexit regulatory framework will be important, as well as more specific requirements within it. The EU General Food Law Regulation currently sets out that the main objective of food law is to ensure a high level of protection of human health and consumers’ interest in relation to food. It establishes important principles such as transparency and independence of scientific advice and concepts such as the importance of a plough to plate approach, traceability and how risk analysis should be conducted.
The Regulation recognises that decisions about food safety controls should be science-based, but also that other legitimate factors need to be taken into account when deciding how to appropriately regulate food. This recognises that science is important, but that attitudes to food can have a social and ethical dimension (animal cloning is one example). Crucially, it also acknowledges that there will sometimes be scientific uncertainty and where there is, it is legitimate to apply precaution in order to protect consumer health. This precautionary principle frequently comes under attack, but reflects what was learned from the mistakes that led to the BSE crisis.
Beneath this sits a range of legislation that defines requirements on issues from hygiene to labelling rules – everything from meat controls to food additives, pesticides and health claims. There are some gaps that Brexit could mean can be addressed, for example, mandatory traffic light nutrition labelling (currently voluntary), establishing limits on Campylobacter in chickens and origin labelling.
National food legislation will however be subject to wider government policy initiatives. There is currently a strong deregulatory focus through a business impact target and a ‘one in; three out’ rule for any new legislation. EU legislation has been exempt from this target, but that will no longer be the case. It is therefore also important that Brexit does not lead to the loss of important consumer protection as current EU requirements, not directly implemented within UK law, come under review.
There’s also a capacity issue. This scientific assessments required under food law, and which will need to continue in order to ensure food safety, have largely fallen to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in recent years. It works through panels of experts drawn from across Europe, providing pan-European advice (and I had the privilege of chairing it for the past four years). Brexit therefore also raises questions about the infrastructure that will need to be boosted at national level, in order to provide effective consumer protection, should we no longer be linked in to this wider system.
At the moment, there is a lot of reliance on EU research funding in order to help understand what some of the risks may be and how to control them. It also funds a lot of collaboration and innovation across the food sector. It will be important that the UK still has a strong research and evidence base to underpin food policy and mechanisms to collaborate with EU and other international bodies. Research focused in driving innovation and ultimately growth, needs to be underpinned by research to understand any potential safety or other risks for consumers and wider society. The Food Standards Agency’s (FSA’s) remit has been narrowed in recent years. But consumers, as well as the food industry, will need a strong, independent and effective FSA, working closely with a strong Food Standards Scotland (FSS).
Effective consumer protection also relies on identifying and understanding potential hazards across complex and globalised supply chains. The EU has a rapid alert system for food and feed – and it will be important that the UK is still able to tap into its intelligence. Food safety and fraud issues will not respect national borders.
At the moment, the EU generally specifies how food law should be enforced and the Official Controls regulation that covers this has recently been revised. The European Commission carries out audits of how member states are enforcing legislation – and checks in third countries. There have traditionally been differences in approach across the EU – vets for example have greater prominence in food safety in some other countries. There could therefore be benefit in greater flexibility, but the UK could be shouldering greater responsibility for enforcement at a time when local authority resourcing of food safety controls are already under strain. This again points to the need for a strengthened FSA.
Sitting above the requirements of EU food legislation is the body of international food standards and trade rules that can ultimately determine what level of consumer protection consumers can expect. How much more significant this will become will depend on the nature of our relationship with the EU and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) as well as where our food supply comes from going forward. The Codex Alimentarius Commission is the UN body that sets international food standards used as reference texts when settling WTO disputes. It is here that debates over what level of protection – from beef hormones to GM foods – have played out between countries and trading blocks, particularly the US and EU.
Overall, there remains a lot of uncertainty about what Brexit will really mean until a clearer sense of what our relationship with the EU could look like emerges. Even at this early stage, it is important that potential risks as well as opportunities for consumer protection in both the short and long-term are taken into account – and that consumers interests are put at the heart of the negotiations.