As Brexit trade talks continue, consumers are voicing strident concerns over an expected plunge in imported food standards. Once the transition period ends on 31 December 2020, the UK will sever ties with the European Food Safety Authority and other protective mechanisms – such as veterinary medicine guidelines and rapid alert schemes – that uphold EU food standards.
The relaxation of food regulations has sparked fears that potentially harmful produce such as hormone-reared beef and chlorine-washed chicken – particularly from the United States – could soon appear on our supermarket shelves. According to the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, a trade deal with the US could open our borders to currently banned products and practices, including:
- Salmonella – Eggs imported from the US would have a significantly higher likelihood of containing salmonella than those produced in the EU.
- Chicken litter – US chickens are routinely fed a mixture of feed and animal waste. The UK BSE outbreak demonstrated the dangers of incorporating animal material and faeces into the diets of livestock. Reintroducing the practice could trigger a similar catastrophe, placing public health and UK-based food production at risk.
- Food additives – The US takes a far less stringent view of food additives, using a wider range of substances, at higher levels. For example, potential human carcinogens potassium bromate and azodicarbonamide are barred within the EU but authorised for use in US bread making as ‘dough improvers’.
- Food labelling – Compared to EU standards, US food labelling provides significantly less information.
- Ractopamine – This drug additive, widely used in US pig farming to produce leaner cuts of pork, is prohibited in the EU because of suspected toxicity to animals and humans. In 2009, the European Food Safety Authority concluded there was ‘not enough data to show that it is safe for human consumption at any level’.
- Pesticides – Pesticides are more prevalent in US agriculture, with maximum residue levels often exceeding those allowed within the EU. Importing treated fruit and vegetables could allow a catalogue of currently restricted chemicals into our food chain.
According to a recent YouGov poll, nearly three quarters (71%) of the British public want UK leaders to block US attempts to overturn bans on pesticides. This vocal opposition is key, as responsibility for food safety and welfare will soon transfer from the EU to our own policy makers. A 2018 House of Lords Library Briefing on Brexit food safety predicted that the UK is likely to independently oversee:
- Pre-market approvals and authorisations for food and feed additives, enzymes, flavourings, genetically modified food and feed
- Risk-based standards and controls
- Information and intelligence sharing systems
- Rapid response to help stop potentially harmful food reaching UK consumers
- Third country inspections and safety checks on food entering the UK
The COVID-19 effect – a clean slate for food standards?
As the COVID-19 pandemic placed Brexit talks temporarily on pause, UK food producers and supermarket supply chains faced unprecedented pressure levels and an almost overnight shift to online-led demand. For the first time, many consumers were forced to reflect on the fragility of our food supply.
Meanwhile, before the crisis hit, part one of the National Food Strategy – the first major review of our food system in 75 years – was published in 2019. The report’s authors see the pandemic as an opportunity for positive change, calling for safe, healthy, traceable food to be available to everyone.
The National Food Strategy urges Government to only agree to cut trade deal tariffs on products that meet core UK standards. There are further demands from industry experts to establish verification systems that prove producers have satisfied minimum food safety, animal welfare and environmental and climate protection requirements before they’re allowed to sell within the UK market.
Both events have shone a light on changing attitudes and expectations around food, fuelling new awareness and strong consumer opinion about safety, standards and availability. Will the Facebook petitions and farmers’ protests shape post-Brexit policy? We’ll continue to keep you updated.
Southalls provides expert health and safety consultancy to keep your business compliant in a rapidly changing world. For sector-specific guidance – including a review of your food safety strategy in line with evolving regulations – please get in touch with the team. Learn more about our compliance management services.