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.
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Explore This IssueApril/May 2020
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“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.
However, concerns over food safety standards have been raised because these “corrections” can be made by government agency ministers without approval by Parliament and can go far beyond their intended scope. Calling it “the devil in the details,” a recent report by the UK Trade Policy Observatory—a partnership between the University of Sussex and the Royal Institute of International Affairs—identifies several areas where the UK’s post-Brexit food safety rules “fall short of the level of protection currently provided by the EU.”
The report discusses several particularly worrisome areas, among them GMO authorization and labeling, food additive authorization and monitoring, and microbiological food safety. For example, U.K. agency ministers can use the Brexit statutory instruments to develop and amend guidance for sampling, testing, and standards for GMO product labeling thresholds. While consultation with FSA is required, this process replaces functions of the EU reference laboratories, said the report.
While Brexit statutory instruments transfer many EU provisions regarding food additives to U.K. law, they also revoke EU requirements to monitor and report food additive consumption and make substantive changes to regulations for certain additives. “This change suggests that the government intends to cease monitoring the consumption of food additives, which would be a significant change of policy,” the report states.
One controversial area is microbiological food safety. The report states that U.K. officials can abandon the EU prohibition on food derived from washing animal carcasses with anything but water (or a lactic acid solution for beef). This can lead the way to importing “chlorinated chicken”—a euphemism for the practice of cleaning raw poultry with chlorinated water in an effort to kill bacteria, such as Campylobacter, Salmonella, and Listeria.
The U.S. and many other countries use chlorinated water, but the EU banned it in 1997 over food safety concerns. Since then, many studies have concluded that the practice is not harmful to consumers (rinsing salad in chlorinated water is common, even throughout Europe), but it isn’t necessarily as effective as many assume. Other Brexit-related concerns involve residue levels of pesticides on U.S. agricultural products, the use of antibiotics and hormones in U.S. cattle, and the use of the chemical ractopamine to make U.S. pigs leaner and meatier.
Following a post-Brexit Cabinet shuffle in February 2020, the U.K.’s new Environment Secretary, George Eustice, said the government had no plans to change food safety laws, but would not rule out the possibility of accepting U.S. food standards as part of a trade deal. He noted that most U.S. poultry producers now use a lactic acid solution to wash raw chicken, instead of chlorine.
Nevertheless, it is chlorinated chicken that has become a rallying cry for those opposed to Brexit (the “remainers”) and for political opponents in the Labor Party, as well as among those who advocate the adoption of EU standards into British law. A recent survey found that more than four-fifths (81 percent) of the British public are worried about meat quality standards being relaxed in pursuit of trade deals with the U.S. and other countries.
The survey, commissioned by Unison, the largest trade union in the U.K., found that more than half (52 percent) believe government meat quality standards should be tightened after Brexit, one-third (34 percent) say the U.K. should maintain its current laws, and 3 percent say rules should be relaxed. The poll of more than 2,000 people was taken amid concerns that the government could agree to import chicken washed in chlorine or lactic acid in exchange for a U.S. deal.
Still, the likelihood of a major negative impact on food safety following Brexit has increased from “possible” to “probable,” according to a report from Public Health Wales, the national public health agency. “There is stronger, direct evidence of a potential negative impact on food standards in the form of published United States (U.S.) trade objectives,” the report states.
In the scientific arena, there is concern over the loss of U.K. participation in the EU-wide Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF). This system allows member states to quickly send and receive notice of unsafe and rejected consignments of food and feed products, making it harder for dishonest importers to unload them. Unless the U.K. remains in the program, EU countries “may become less enthusiastic about buying U.K. food products,” the UK Trade Policy Observatory report states.
One scientific area at least has been settled: The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has decided to continue employing U.K. experts despite Brexit, noting that science does not recognize borders, “and we want to have the best people” in our ranks.