UK struggles to implement food regulations post-Brexit

UK – More than two years post-Brexit, the UK is still having trouble implementing food regulations, with delays, ambiguity, regulatory divergence, and staffing concerns dominating the scene.

The recently published House of Commons Public Accounts Committee investigation paints a picture of below-par operations in how Britain is handling food regulation, providing quality checks at the border and generally keeping up with its regulatory responsibilities since leaving the EU.

“Six years after the Brexit vote and with key international trade agreements still dangling years out of sight, repeated delays to implementing a new import regime continue to impact British businesses and increase risks for consumers.

“The effects of potential headcount reductions of up to 40% across government are unclear but, if implemented, would make current regulatory models unsustainable without fundamental reform including changes to legislation,” Dame Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said.

The report notes that a shortage of vets to monitor food safety and animal welfare in abattoirs, toxicologists to assess food risks and chemical safety vets weighs heavily on how food regulation is being managed, posing a risk to consumers.

One example is how the lack of vets could significantly impact the meat industry, which, under current regulations, cannot place meat on the market in the UK or export it without veterinary oversight. Any divergence in this procedure would require legislative change.

It also reveals that the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) will not have full import checks on high-risk food imported from the EU until the end of 2023.

Losing access to vital data and shared systems is also a crucial issue, reports FoodIngredients1st.

The FSA has also lost full access to the EU’s Rapid Alert System on Food and Feed (RASFF), which provides member states with information on food safety incidents, increasing the time and effort it takes to deal with food safety incidents.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) no longer has access to the chemical safety data underpinning the EU’s Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulations.

Industry has estimated it will cost £800 million (US$901 million) to replicate this data in the UK REACH system.

“The regulators are taking action to mitigate these issues, but in some instances, the alternatives are more time-consuming and are likely to increase costs over time.

“We are disappointed that no progress has been made in taking these issues forward, despite the regulators’ willingness to do so,” reads the HoC report.

The UK’s quality checks on goods entering the EU via the Ireland-UK border have already been blasted as “not fit for purpose,” with increasing concerns that some items do not comply with regulations.

Different approaches to regulation

After the UK left the EU, its regulators assumed a number of new and extended duties that had previously been handled by the EU and its institutions.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is expanding its role in competition enforcement and taking on new functions, the HSE is running an independent chemicals regulatory regime, and the FSA has a larger role in the regulation of food imports and regulated products.

But each body faces a wide range of problems, and reforming has been difficult for the past two years.

The UK and EU already take slightly different approaches to regulation. One instance is the recent EU ban on the food ingredient titanium dioxide, but the UK has not enacted a ban and the FSA is doing its own risk assessment.

The paper also notes that the HSE currently runs distinct biocide and pesticide regulation frameworks. There may be room to control pesticides differently and more effectively in the future, though, as they are all biocides by definition.

However, it should be noted that most of the time, regulatory reform will necessitate legislative change, and the extent and timing of this remain to be seen.

“The regulators should work together on ways to address the loss of regulatory cooperation arrangements with the EU, and in six months we expect a progress report on how the arrangements set out in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement are being taken forward,” Hillier said.

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