Now that Brexit is official, U.K. officials are racing to revise food safety regulations to shift authority from the European Union (EU) to domestic law and jurisdiction. All such revisions need to be in place before the U.K.’s self-imposed Jan. 1, 2021 deadline, when the current transition period ends and new relationships among Britain, the EU, and other nations are set to begin.
“Leaving the EU hasn’t changed our top priority, which is to ensure that U.K. food remains safe and what it says it is,” said the U.K. Food Standards Agency (FSA) in a post-Brexit statement. “The FSA is working hard to ensure that the high standard of food safety and consumer protection we enjoy in this country is maintained when the U.K. leaves the EU. Throughout the transition period and beyond we are committed to having in place a robust and effective regulatory regime which will mean business can continue as normal.”
The U.K. began post-Brexit trade negotiations separately with the EU and the U.S. in March, although concerns over COVID-19 put these on hold. Discussions, either in person or by teleconference, are expected to take months. Many officials are skeptical that agreements between the U.K. and the EU can be reached by the end of the year, even without COVID-19. If so, and unless the transition period is extended, the U.K. and EU will begin trading on World Trade Organization default terms starting in January 2021.
In a report to members of Parliament in February, the U.K.’s International Trade Secretary Liz Truss said the government is seeking major reductions in tariffs on exports made to the U.S. and other trading partners. “We aim to secure free trade agreements with countries covering 80 percent of U.K. trade within the next three years,” she stated. “We will drive a hard bargain and, as with all negotiations, we will be prepared to walk away if that is in the national interest.”
According to a report by the U.K.’s International Trade Department, a free-trade agreement with the U.S. would add about £3.4 billion ($4.4 billion), or 0.16 percent, to the U.K.’s growth by 2035. U.S. trade negotiators are seeking expanded access to U.K. markets for remanufactured goods and textiles, as well as “comprehensive market access” for U.S. agricultural products and foods, including those developed with biotechnology, according to a report by the U.S. Trade Representative. Currently, the EU (and therefore U.K.) bars such products.
For the remainder of 2020, EU food safety laws and regulations will remain in place for the U.K., with no changes required for food producers, importers, or exporters. Despite government assurances, there is widespread concern in the U.K. that post-Brexit food safety protections will be weakened if Britain doesn’t adopt existing EU standards and, instead, weakens them with less stringent regulations, especially if these measures are taken to facilitate new trade agreements with the U.S. and other countries.
In particular, there is concern that Prime Minister Boris Johnson will bow to pressure from the Trump Administration and allow the U.K. to import chlorine-disinfected chicken, hormone-treated beef, and genetically modified food from the U.S.—products that are prohibited under EU rules.
Johnson insisted there would be no “diminution in food hygiene or animal welfare standards” and said all new free-trade deals “will be governed by science and not by mumbo-jumbo.” He told critics to “grow up” and “get a grip,” noting that the U.S. buys one-fifth of all U.K. exports. In an interview with the BBC, trade secretary Truss bluntly declared, “We will not diminish our food safety standards.”
British officials are seeking a Canada-style free trade agreement with the EU that eliminates most, but not all, tariffs and includes cooperation on safety and quality standards. But border inspections on imported goods are still required. While EU officials have indicated general support for such an arrangement, they also noted that the deal with Canada happened only after Ottawa brought many of its regulations into line with the EU’s, and are urging the U.K. to do the same.
‘The Devil in the Details’
The European Union (Withdrawal) Act of 2018 permits certain EU laws to be directly transferred into UK law effective Jan. 1, 2021. The act also allows the U.K. to make “corrections” to “deficiencies” in these “retained laws” by way of secondary legislation, called “statutory instruments.” The idea is to allow minor technical changes, such as changing references to the name of the agency responsible for carrying out certain activities. “Retained EU law will not work properly unless something is done to transfer the functions to U.K. public bodies,” FSA explains.