Whilst much of the recent discussion has rightly focused on whether we will be able to move food from Europe to supermarket shelves post-Brexit there are other fundamental issues to consider on how our food is regulated, which have not yet received the same attention.
I’ve been surprised in this respect that the only discussion to date on the topic has really been about our membership of EFSA. Whilst EFSA has an important role to play in ensuring food safety, it is a risk assessor not a risk manager. EFSA research is used by European decision makers, primarily the Commission, to decide alongside other factors such as social values, economic growth and trade, how our food and food production should be regulated.
The UK has a decision to make about membership of EFSA but technically, providing resources and structures are appropriate, it can replicate its role. The more intriguing question is who replaces the European institutions’ role as risk manager. Who will take the final decision on what food can be sold in our supermarkets and what remedial action to take in the event of a food incident? Although many of the decisions on the safety of food are routine, there are some which have a major impact on consumers and producers. For example, what approach will the UK take to new technology such as the current issue of gene editing? Also, what decisions would the UK have taken during a food incident? These are both issues that could have significant importance for consumers and producers.
There appear to be two options the government is considering. The first is for the Food Standards Agency of England, Wales and Northern Ireland together with Food Standards Scotland to consider the majority of issues but escalate those with the greatest public interest to the four relevant UK Ministers for decision. This would mean the majority of technical decisions taken by officials, similar to the European approach. A pragmatic approach, but it would be interesting to see what the criteria is for escalating decisions to Ministers. Also, although the FSA has an indirect route to Parliament through the Health Minister it could be argued there is less democratic oversight than that of a government department.
The second option is for the Ministers to take all the decisions. A clearer option for democratic oversight but one which would substantially increase the workload and complexity of issues for health and agricultural Ministers.
Whichever approach is taken, it is clear there will be an important and prominent role for devolved governments in future decisions on food safety and acceptable methods of food production. This could lead to divergence in decisions on what is deemed safe or acceptable in production within the UK, which would be very difficult for food producers to manage and potentially confusing for consumers.
For the first time in decades, the UK will make its own decisions on food safety, we can set an independent approach to risk management. Although divergence from European decisions may be marginal, bearing in mind we may align regulation on food and we will be conscious not to damage trade, there will still be important decisions to be made not least during food incidents. It will mean Ministers are directly accountable for their decisions to UK consumers and producers and those decisions are likely to be more visible and scrutinised. Add to that the potential complexity of divergence across the four UK Governments and it is clear that how we recreate our system of risk management is one of the more important consequences of Brexit for the UK food industry.
The changes will need new Primary legislation and we expect legislative proposals in the Autumn. Once those are published we can expect a greater debate on the future of our food regulatory system.
By Andrew Opie, Director of Food and Sustainability at the British Retail Consortium