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Will UK food safety suffer at the hands of Brexit?

What will Brexit mean for food safety?

Food and farming alliance charity Sustain warns that Britain’s regulators are “hopelessly ill equipped” for the food safety fall out after Brexit.

Public health is at risk due to budget and staff cuts at UK food safety bodies and will struggle to cope with food safety demands brought on by Brexit, new analysis by food and farming alliance charity Sustain says.

Between the 2010/11 and 2016/17 tax years, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) saw its budget cut by 26% - nearly £30m - and lost more than 21% of its staff. Between 2012/13 and 2015/16, the UK also saw a 22% reduction in the number of local authority food law enforcement officers.

In a 2015 survey by the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, some 47% of respondents claimed that resources “were only just adequate to provide a basic statutory service, left no contingency and that any further cuts would compromise service delivery”.

What’s going to happen after Brexit?

While the UK is still a member of the European Union, our food standards are covered by European regulatory agencies, like the European Food Safety Authority. Such agencies investigate risks to health in the food chain and develop and share knowledge in the food safety field. It’s safe to say that UK regulatory bodies have been reliant on these agencies.

But when Britain leaves the EU, will we be ready to take up additional monitoring and regulation responsibilities? Kath Dalmeny, Chief Executive of Sustain certainly doesn’t think we are ready:

“Our food safety is critical and yet it is clear that as a nation we are hopelessly underprepared to exit the customs union and single market. Regulation has been a dirty word of late, condemned as ‘red tape’ that holds the industry back, but when it comes to food safety, we need strong rules and inspections. We all expect the food on our plates to be safe. We need fresh commitments from government to give the people who keep our food safe the proper resources they need.”

Should Government shelve plans to outsource inspections?

Meanwhile, food safety experts have questioned the efficacy of Government’s Regulating Our Future programme, which includes plans to overcome cuts to enforcement by outsourcing food safety inspections to private companies. They suggest that doing so would endanger public health, arguing that outsourcing would “destabilise the institutions responsible for enforcing food safety standards”.

Plans proposed by the UK Government could see food companies being allowed a choice over who would inspect them, raising the possibility of conflicts of interest occurring. Such a change in approach would require an update to the 1999 Food Safety Act to proceed, as the Act assumes that food standards are enforced by local authority environmental health officers.

An FSA spokesperson responded to the claims made by Professor Erik Millstone an Tim Lang, saying that “local authorities will continue to have ultimate responsibility for enforcement of food safety and food standards regulation. No business will be responsible for regulating itself”.

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