SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit

Report urges government to halt food-safety overhaul

A new report by Emeritus Professor Erik Millstone and Professor Tim Lang (City, University of London) urges the UK Government to halt plans to outsource food safety inspections to private companies. These proposals, they argue, would endanger public health and damage UK food exporters after Brexit.

The report – titled ‘Weakening UK food law enforcement: a risky tactic in Brexit – was published by the Food Research Collaboration on 8 March 2018.

Weakening UK food law enforcement - report cover imageIt questions why the Food Standards Agency (FSA) is pushing forward with a programme of change (called Regulating Our Future - or ROF) that will destabilise the institutions responsible for enforcing food safety standards.

The timing could not be worse, according to the researchers, with the Government still to clarify exactly how it plans to manage the effects of Brexit on the UK food industry. An unprecedented 37 food industry bodies signed a wake-up call on ‘Food Brexit’ on 15 February. These did not include any consumer or public health bodies. That perspective is also needed, say Profs Millstone and Lang, as is shown by significance of the ROF proposals.

Professor Millstone comments:

“ROF is terrible timing when Government has not even clarified how UK food security will be adversely affected by Brexit. These changes would impose a flawed shift in responsibility for food law enforcement. This would be risky at the best of times but, when uncertainties abound over ‘Food Brexit’, this is bad policy being rushed through when Ministers and Parliament are not paying attention. You cannot ‘put consumers first’ by keeping them in the dark. Food companies are well aware of the risks, but the government has not listened.”

The report shows that ROF will:

  • make the UK’s food supply less safe by further weakening systems that are already too weak.
  • create irreconcilable conflicts of interests - instead of public officials inspecting food businesses, the companies will choose who will ‘mark their homework’.
  • hand over responsibility for food safety inspections and audits to private commercial third-party providers, when outsourcing to private companies has already been shown to be more expensive, less reliable and – in the case of Carillion – unsustainable.
  • undermine the 1999 Food Safety Act, which assumed that safety and quality standards would be enforced by adequately trained and resourced local authority Environmental Health Officers (EHOs) and Trading Standards Officers (TSOs) in collaboration with Public Analysts - ROF undermines that expectation.

Implementing the proposals in RoF 2017 is highly likely to harm the ability of British producers to sell their food products in the EU market after Brexit.  The EU will almost certainly refuse to accept imports of UK food products, unless safety standards are enforced by public sector institutions and personnel.

A major issue is access to industrial food-safety data. The FSA hopes that FBOs and third-party assurance sub-contractors will readily share any data the FSAs request, but in exchange the FSA has promised to keep all those data, and presumably all analyses of those data, entirely confidential.

The authors recommend that:

  • ROF should be put on hold. Almost every aspect of ROF should be discarded, especially while the uncertainties of Brexit for food trade and regulation remain unresolved.
  • A special Parliamentary joint select committee, between the Health and Environment, Food & Rural Affairs committees, should be urgently convened to review the ROF proposals.
  • In any event, the 1999 Food Safety Act should be immediately amended to give the FSA (and counterparts in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales) the power to oblige FBOs to collect minimum food safety and quality monitoring data on their ingredients, processes and products, and the power to require all FBOs to share those data with their local authorities and with the FSA.
  • Food safety data already being collected should be used to create and publish food safety performance league tables, categorising all types of FBOs along the lines of the Food Hygiene Rating System, rather than restricting that scheme just to restaurants and cafes.

Further information

Read the full report and press release on the Food Research Collaboration website.

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