Brexit and food – standards could get even worse

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Things could go from bad to worse. shutterstock.com

The UK’s food safety regime is not working properly. It is failing to ensure an acceptably safe food supply. Food poisoning rates are too high; confirmed cases of the Campylobacter bacteria, for example, increased by about 46% from 2008 to 2012.

The food supply is too dirty; since 2014 the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has said that poultry isn’t clean enough that it can safely be washed without the risk of spreading infection. Meanwhile, consumer trust is understandably low, and the food industry is focused on the uncertainties arising from Brexit.

In these circumstances, for the UK’s food regulator, the FSA, to be planning a major reorganisation is, at the very least, poor timing. We argue it is worse. The programme of change the FSA plans – known as Regulating Our Future – will do little or nothing to improve food safety or nutritional public health. But it will do a lot to weaken official oversight of food businesses and undermine public health.

What’s wrong with the plan?

The FSA plans to change who conducts food safety inspections in the UK. It proposes to transfer responsibility for many food safety inspections and audits from the public sector to private commercial assurance providers. But those commercial firms will not primarily serve the public interest. They will focus on their food industry clients’ interests, creating conflicts of interests between commercial inspectors and the consuming public.

This switch to commerce is precisely what the FSA was set up to end. We know, because we were heavily involved in the British debates over food scandals in the 1980s and 90s, which culminated in the Labour Party (then, as now, in opposition) promising to set up an independent food agency. It would confirm academic Marver Bernstein’s theory that agencies set up to regulate industries are often subverted by the industry they were created to oversee.

Last month, we published a detailed critique of the FSA’s new plan. As well as creating irreconcilable conflicts of interest, we argue:

  • The changes will destabilise those currently responsible for enforcing food safety standards
  • The UK food supply will become less safe
  • To weaken already overstretched institutions responsible for ensuring food safety in the UK is particularly unwise in the context of Brexit
  • Brexit means the UK will need a stronger FSA, once reliance on the European Food Safety Authority and other food institutions has ended

We also argued that the source of the problems lay not with the FSA but with UK government ministers whose instructions it must follow. Yet the FSA’s response was feeble at best and has largely dismissed these concerns.

Trouble in store

There are a number of reasons these changes matter for public health. First, food-related ill health is a major source of premature death in the UK. The FSA was created at the end of the 1990s to be a major force to prevent the kinds of harm that had occurred in the UK for over decade.

Seemingly endless problems over safety in the 1980s, culminating in the 1996 mad cow disease (BSE) crisis, exposed weakness in how food safety standards were set and enforced. Self-regulation had predominated. The FSA was created in 1999 to change all that.

UK food safety is at risk.
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The proposed reforms also matter because of Brexit. Just when the public needs a stronger body to ensure that standards are not weakened in future trade deals, the FSA and local authorities’ enforcement services are being undermined. Knives are sharpening to remove what hardliners see as excessive EU food regulations.

Public health and food companies require public confidence in standards of traded foods. The UK has a yawning food trade gap, importing £22.5 billion more food than it exports. 31% of UK food by value comes from within the EU. To disrupt this trade in the face of Brexit is risky.

Further, while ministers may believe their own rhetoric that markets protect consumers better than the state can, the history of food policy suggests otherwise. Of course, there are good companies that achieve high standards, but this is not true for all firms.

Ministers are accelerating a process of weakening the FSA, which began with Andrew Lansley’s decision to deprive it of the responsibility for nutrition and labelling in 2010. This was compounded by the austerity regime that followed the 2008 financial crisis. The FSA’s budget was cut by nearly 23% in the period from 2011-12 to 2016-17, and the number of samples taken for testing by local authority Environmental Health Officers in the UK fell by 22%, and in England by almost 25%.

Yet, with the FSA’s responsibilities set to increase with Brexit, there are no plans to increase its budget accordingly.

What needs to happen?

A substantial reduction of independent food safety checks might be thought an arcane matter, only of interest to health obsessives or policy wonks. But regulatory changes have a clear track record of producing public outrage when things go wrong – not least because it affects everyone.

The whole purpose of independent food inspection goes back deep into UK food history. Public health inspections were created in the mid-19th century to address problems experienced by urbanising populations. So scrutinising the FSA’s new plan is necessary and urgent.

The implementation of the FSA’s plans should stop, while a parliamentary select committee, drawing together both the Health and Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committees, reviews the proposals.

We want to see a strengthened FSA and properly resourced local authorities. Ministers should be held accountable for the consequences of their decisions. Currently they try passing the blame onto the FSA. And food safety standards need to be enforced in the UK by a system that is not compromised by commercial conflicts of interest.

The Conversation

Erik P Millstone has received funding from the European Commission for studies of BSE science and policy, and for a study of policy options for responding to obesity.

Tim Lang was PI on Phase 1 of the Food Research Collaboration funded by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, which funds Phase 2 of the FRC, publisher of the primary report on which this article draws.