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Peering into the Brexit gloom

Last week’s Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum focused on the future of food regulation after Brexit. What did we learn? By David Burrows.

GLASSES ARE HALF EMPTY. Pessimism is increasing when it comes to food and Brexit. Research presented by Food Standards Scotland showed that the number of consumers who believe prices will go up has risen from 62% to 65%. Also, 28% believe the availability of environmentally friendly or sustainable products will fall, compared with 22% in the agency’s previous tracker. And 36% think availability will be reduced, up from 29%. This means the role of regulation and regulatory assurance becomes “even more important” once the UK leaves the European Union, said the FSS chief executive, Geoff Ogle.

DON’T DILUTE … Ministers should be extremely mindful that any perceived watering down of European standards could have serious implications for the UK’s food sector. Member states will continue to be trading partners but they will also be competitors, looking for any gaps or weaknesses in UK standards. Trade deals with other nations will also be closely scrutinised. A post-Brexit trade deal with the US could see the UK flooded with cheap chlorine-washed chicken. Last week, the president of the US National Farmers Union told the BBC that US food is “perfectly safe”; the US standards, said Roger Johnson, are not lower, they’re just “different”. Still, the notion of trading off lower standards in exchange for lower prices and increased availability is “roundly rejected” by consumers, Ogle warned.

… OR DEVOLVE. A close alignment with existing European standards seems sensible, though there may well be some tinkering. The prime minister, Theresa May, appears keen to fiddle with front-of-pack nutrition labels, while DEFRA ministers have said they might want to look at improved animal welfare standards. So-called “method of production” labelling – including details of the conditions in which animals are reared – is attracting a fair bit of attention. Raising the bar is no bad thing – in fact, it’s a fair bet the UK could become more competitive as a result. However, there is clearly concern that standards across the UK need to be more closely aligned (an example would be hygiene rating stickers, which are mandatory everywhere but England). Martin Forsyth, the head of technical at the British Frozen Food Federation, raised the spectre of the four home nations “all doing something different”. Consumers, the conclusion was, don’t want to be confused.

FARMERS FIGHT. Of course, there’s also a chance that – in spite of Michael Gove’s rhetoric – the environment secretary will be pushed to relax some rules. The “silly” ones could be scrubbed and the Daily Mail will surely be preparing a list of these. More worrying are the noises being made by the farming sector. The UK has often gold-plated some of Europe’s laws, often to the chagrin of producers who have to foot the bill. Is the National Farmers Union on a deregulation hunt? Perhaps. At last week’s forum, the NFU Cymru deputy president, Aled Jones, suggested the government should scrap electronic tagging of sheep – an example of over-burdensome regulation, he suggested. Sue Davies from the consumer group Which? urged caution, though – tagging is an important part of livestock traceability so removing it, or any other similar rules, would probably serve only to strip away consumer confidence.

TIME FOR MORE TRACEABILITY. A key theme during the morning was traceability up and down the supply chain. There was talk of the merits of blockchain and the Food Standards Agency’s new regulatory systems. “For the first time it will give us a unified view of all food businesses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland,” said the FSA chair, Heather Hancock. So if a restaurant owner in the Midlands falls foul of their allergen responsibilities and causes serious harm to a customer, the agency can quickly track if they own other restaurants that local authorities should check out, she explained.