"We are living in uncertain times". That was the thrust of the introduction by Sam Jennings, Chair of the IFST Food Law group, at their recent event, "Focus Future – A Regulatory Minefield?"
The meeting featured three speakers to help the audience steer through the uncertainties, each bringing different perspectives from across the UK food landscape: Michael Jackson – leader of the FSA’s “Regulating our Future” (RoF) programme, a root and branch reform of the food regulatory system in the UK; Helen Munday, Chief Scientific Officer from the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) with a pan-industry perspective, and Gokay Sen, Regulatory Consultant at Leatherhead Food Research, providing an expert consultancy view.
Michael Jackson was clear that the RoF programme came before the decision for the UK to exit the EU, but is having to align the plans. The intent is to have a modern resilience regulatory system that delivers to the FSA pledge that “Food is safe and what it says it is”. This system will be supported by technological advances in data handling and analysis to better predict and assure food safety and standards. Moving through an enhanced new business registration process, risk-based determination of controls, and better use of information that is available from industry assurance activities, businesses will be expected to pay the full cost of regulation, but within a more effective and efficient system where costs are reduced for the lower risk and more compliant businesses.
Helen Munday then took the audience through some potential impacts of the UK's exit from the EU on the food and drink sector. FDF has published a manifesto of priorities, and are engaging regularly with government on behalf of its members, to help provide the clarity everyone is seeking. Helen highlighted a number of risks: to access to talent; to the creation of new non-tariff barriers through regulation divergence; divergence within the UK countries. She stressed that it is necessary to get things right on day 1, using a ‘lift and shift’ approach to EU regs, with a roadmap for future changes in legislation and a framework for mutual recognition. Access to intelligence and rapid alerts needs to be maintained, as well as access to or substitutes for EFSA risk assessment, EU inspection capabilities, databases on claims, and approaches to labelling and PGIs (protected geographical identification). There was some light in the message – Brexit has brought the UK food supply chain players together to maximise outcomes, there are enough mutual benefits for continued close cooperation with the EU, and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) could be improved.
Gokay Sen then explained the role of Codex Alimentarius, the global food standards body, which operates in a similar structure to the EU. The UK will have the right to speak and vote as a single country, after exiting the EU. However the speed of change can be an issue, with many more countries involved, and the standards are not always as strict or specific. He outlined the relationship with the WTO and its agreements, dealing with rules of trade, which usually refer to Codex standards as reference texts for trade disputes. The UK will be bound still to follow WTO agreements (as it does for many countries), unless there are negotiated trade agreements. The future may hold more disputes involving the UK specifically (EU handle these currently) and a potential deal with the US may present particular areas of challenge, e.g. GM crops and food, novel foods, hormone fed beef, chlorinated chicken, organic foods.
The audience left, still facing a lot of uncertainty and questions, but perhaps clearer on some of the potential contributing factors and their implications.