Brexit: A “perfect storm” for the UK food industry

October 27, 2017, 12:33 pm
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The Sustain food and farming alliance has submitted its evidence to a Parliamentary inquiry examining the fallout from Brexit in terms of the British food industry. The campaign group is heavily critical, claiming that the UK’s high food standards could be completely undermined by new international trade deals that don’t match the country’s strict food controls.

Rising food prices, regulatory uncertainties, greatly diminished capacity of food inspectors and standards bodies, and likely challenges from international trade deals with countries working to lower food standards compared to Britain.

These are all factors that Sustain says could lead to a “perfect storm” for the UK food industry.

This critical analysis is published by the alliance, as their submission to Parliament’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRA) Trade in Food inquiry into trade in food.

“People rightly expect their food to meet high standards of safety, quality and provenance,” said Kath Dalmeny, Chief Executive of Sustain, who consulted with food standards organizations to compile the report.

“We have seen many instances over recent years of the food industry and consumer confidence suffering severe knocks from problems in our supply chain such as horsemeat, salmonella and antibiotics – at the cost of billions. The UK’s regulators have worked with industry to deal with problems and UK food and farming industries are generally well regulated and inspected to ensure that food safety and quality issues are kept under sensible control, while also working to achieve higher standards of consumer protection, environmental conservation and animal welfare.”

“Food controls in other countries may not match up to our own high expectations, meaning unfair competition for UK businesses working to higher standards.”

Dalmeny adds how “vocal champions” are needed in UK government as well as proper parliamentary scrutiny to avoid Britain’s high food standards being undermined by new international trade deals, “triggering a global race to the bottom.”

The trade of meat
Sustain’s consultation to inform the report highlighted that there are many concerns to be raised about the difference between UK food standards and those of other countries. Sustain is particularly concerned about what will happen with the meat trade and says this sector is where “issues are perhaps most evident and compelling.”

Citing countries like Brazil, the alliance claims that there may be more acceptance that meat hygiene – such as contamination with feces – can be less stringent in the production phases if it can be “cleaned up” at the end of the process through a system such as antibiotics, chemical treatment or food irradiation, with inspections limited mainly to “end of pipe” testing for residues.

In the UK, the focus is more on reducing the risks of contamination along the supply chain, meaning less overall reliance on, for instance, profligate use of antibiotics, which is an issue of international health concern.

Food inspections at borders
One of the major issues of Brexit is how a new trade deal, or a no-deal if the UK heads that way and can’t reach an agreement with the EU, will impact on border controls.

There are mounting concerns over how border controls will be staffed and manned, how certification process and monitoring will be carried out effectively and so on.

In this report, Sustain highlights similar concerns, claiming that any changes to UK food standards and additional responsibilities for food inspectors would also come at a time when the current UK standards and inspection bodies are already under severe pressure.

This is as a result of greatly reduced resources for essential services such as testing, inspection and border checks.

According to Sustain, there are already barely enough vets, meat hygiene inspectors, food safety officers, environmental health officers and public health laboratory facilities to meet the current needs of the UK food industry and consumer health and safety, let alone increased responsibilities as part of new food trade arrangements.

The scenario is the same whether the UK agrees a new or transitional deal with the EU or in the move to World Trade Organization rules (the three most likely trade options for the UK).

The UK’s trading standards services operating budget have decreased from £213m in 2009 to £124m in 2016, with a consequent 50 percent loss of trading standards staff.

Recent research for the Food Standards Agency suggests that there is 50 percent less capacity for food inspections in England than there is in Wales or Northern Ireland, according to Sustain’s report.

Additionally, the FSA has recently indicated that there is insufficient funding to run the Food Crime Unit that was set up following the horsemeat scandal in 2013.

Stay as close as possible to EU food standards 
Sustain is urging the UK government to stay as close as possible to EU food standard, systems and institutions, whatever the outcome of Brexit in terms of new international trade deals.

It says this would be the best case scenario for Britain in terms of protecting public health, food safety and quality for consumers, taxpayers and the food industry as a whole. This is particularly true for the masses of small to medium-sized enterprises in the UK’s food industry that may not necessarily have the specialist staff or resources to deal with major changes to standards of production, compliance, auditing and labeling.

“Maintenance of the same or similar arrangements would help deal with issues of costs, safety, quality, certainty, consumer confidence and smoother trade relationships,” Sustain says.

Based on consultation with industry experts, the report further highlights a lack of consultation by government and policy-makers, giving the food industry and standards bodies little confidence that their concerns are being addressed – in principles and in the detail.

“We want there to be a UK plan that deals clearly and holistically with governance, food standards, food security and trade issues,” adds Dalmeny. “We want there to be a vision for what the UK is seeking to achieve with food, farming and fishing. And we want all forthcoming policy and new legislation to be accountable for contributing towards achieving that vision – for the benefit of public health, farmers, food and farm workers, food businesses, farm animals and the environment.”

“We look forward to playing a part in achieving a positive vision for the future of the UK’s food, farming and fishing; and to championing the UK’s global leadership on these vital issues. However, there needs to be a plan, which at this time the UK seems to be seriously lacking.”

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