Our food safety standards are in unsafe hands

Our food safety standards are in unsafe hands

Will our food safety standards be thrown onto the ‘bonfire of red tape’?

By Professor Erik Millstone

This blog was updated on 12 October 2022

Last month Jacob Rees-Mogg, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, tabled in Parliament the Retained EU Law (Reform and Revocation) Bill. That Bill represents a very serious threat to food safety in the UK, and to consumer protection standards, such as rules on ingredients, labelling and even weights and measures. Maybe Rees-Mogg wants the UK to abandon all metric units, and revert to inches, feet and miles, if not rods, poles and perches.

The Bill actually threatens all types of regulation that continue to apply in the UK as a result of our former membership of the EU. Prime Minister Liz Truss has repeatedly paraded her infatuation not only with tax cuts but also with deregulation. As she tries to deliver on her promises ‘to deliver’, her government could dismantle many employment, investor, consumer and environmental regulations that provide beneficial protections.

The Bill proposes not just to empower ministers to discard some of the regulations the UK adopted when it was in the EU; it proposes that, by the end of December 2023, any remaining retained EU regulations will be discarded, unless ministers actively ensure that they have by then been incorporated into UK domestic law. Moreover, Truss and Rees-Mogg are recklessly proposing to exempt businesses with fewer than 500 employees from all business regulations. It is almost as ridiculous as thinking that the best way to help poor people is by giving lots of money to rich people.

Food Standards Scotland (FSS), the Scottish counterpart to the London-based Food Standards Agency (FSA), responded to the publication of the Bill by issuing a warning to Scottish consumers and the Scottish government. The Chair of FSS said that the Bill “confuses ‘red tape’ with consumer protection” and “poses a significant risk to Scotland’s ability to uphold the high safety and food standards which the public expects and deserves”.

While Scotland could refuse to weaken its food safety rules in line with changes made by the Westminster government, the Internal Market Act, which was introduced by the Johnson government in 2020, would prevent Scotland excluding less safe food products from elsewhere in the UK from being sold in Scotland.

The word ‘food’ does not appear in the Bill, or the accompanying Explanatory Note, and the word ‘safety’ is only used in relation to the safety of buildings, but the Truss administration has already indicated its enthusiasm for discarding the very modest anti-obesity measures already adopted, such as the sugary beverages tax and controls on the promotion of foods high in fat, sugar or salt. The Grocer magazine has recently published articles from food industry heavyweights in which they expressed incredulity at the idea that the government would contemplate such folly, and from commercial investors who recognise that the food industry needs to become part of the solution if it is to avoid being penalised for being a large part of the problem. With only a few exceptions, firms in the food industry, including farming, food processing and retail, don’t want de-regulation or a ‘bonfire of red tape’. They see the maintenance of prevailing standards as indispensable to maintaining public trust in the safety and authenticity of their products. Food companies want the stability and the certainty provided by a well-regulated market. They want to avoid any changes that would undermine public confidence in their products. They also want continuing, if not growing, access to EU markets so they can profitably export their products to EU member states. The instant that UK ministers start cutting our domestic food standards, access to the EU for UK food exports will be terminated.

Those with long enough memories will know about the food safety scares that started to emerge in the UK in the mid-1980s, e.g., with salmonella in eggs, and culminated with the BSE or Mad Cow Disease crisis that erupted in March 1996. Together, those accumulating crises contributed to the defeat of the Thatcher legacy and John Major’s administration. The evidence showed that the government had been negligent, incompetent and less than completely honest.

Those developments contributed to the election of the New Labour government in May 1997, which in turn led to the creation of the Food Standards Agency, with a specific remit to protect the consumer interest. Recently, however, the FSA has retreated from asserting that it would always ‘put the consumer first’.

In August 2020, the FSA Chief Executive wrote, in an article in New Food magazine, that: “at the Food Standards Agency…we work to strike the right balance between protection from risk, consumer choice, and support for business growth and innovation” (emphasis added). That idiom of striking a balance between commercial and consumer interests was exactly that invoked by John Selwyn-Gummer MP in 1987 when, as Secretary of State, he tried to defend the UK’s failing food regulatory regime. The FSA was not created to give equal weight to those two competing sides. Its ‘essential task’ was “to protect the interests of the public”. Nonetheless, the FSA recognises the danger inherent in the Truss government’s plans, and desperately hopes that ministers will enact legislation to maintain current food safety and consumer protections rules, but the legislative timetable will almost certainly be over-crowded in the next 15 months.

When Boris Johnson was prime minister he would occasionally remark that his government had no plans to cut food safety standards, although his reputation for keeping his word was hardly reassuring. With Truss, no such undertaking has been forthcoming, and her government envisages cutting regulations in ways that would harm both consumers and the food industry. Both of those constituencies want food safety regulations to remain in place and also to be properly enforced.

The Johnson government worked not just to permit, but also to encourage the creation and sale of gene-edited foods in the UK, without any safety tests or any labelling. The Truss regime plans to be more, not less, permissive.

Clearly the new government is dominated by people who have either completely forgotten about the BSE saga and the harm it did to consumers, the livestock industry, and the UK’s reputation for competence and probity, or who insist that industries can be left to regulate themselves, and that unregulated markets solve all problems. Their folly could end up destroying their reputations – but not until they had inflicted substantial harm on public and environmental health.

About the author


Professor Erik Millstone

Erik Millstone is an Emeritus Professor of Science Policy at the University of Sussex. Since 1974 he has been researching the causes, consequences and regulation of technological change in the food and chemical industries. His research has extended over food additives, pesticides and veterinary medicines, as well as BSE, GM foods and obesity. Having conducted comparative studies of food safety policy-making regimes across numerous jurisdictions, he contributed to proposals for the creation of the UK’s Food Standards Agency, and led a review for the European Parliament of the proposal to create the European Food Safety Authority. Much of his recent research has focused on the implications of Brexit for food security in the UK.

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