What Will Brexit Mean for Food Safety?

On 23rd June the UK electorate decided, albeit narrowly, that it no longer wants to be part of the EU. To help voters make one of the most important democratic decisions they were ever likely to face, both remain and leave camps served up a selection of suppositions, arrogant and fanciful assertions, misleading statistics, half truths and downright lies, but precious few verifiable facts. Existing prejudices and fears were pandered to and threats of dire future consequences were made. Not the best basis for a rational decision. Despite this, for better or for worse, the die is cast and we are set on a course to become a former member state.

In practical terms this seems to mean at least five years of uncertainty and chaos as the economic, political and legislative ties created over four and a half decades are unpicked in a tenth of that time. It seems to me that we have barely scratched the surface of what Brexit will mean for the UK and for the EU. Every day brings new implications that seem not to have occurred to anyone in the run up to the vote.

Take food safety law as one relatively minor example. The current legislation that protects consumers from unsafe food originated from the European Commission. The main plank of food safety law is the so-called Food Hygiene Package, consisting of three separate Regulations. In addition, food businesses in the EU are required to comply with a range of other Regulations, notably the Microbiological Criteria Regulation and the Food Contaminants Regulations. The important word here is Regulation, because a Regulation applies immediately throughout the EU as soon as it comes into force and does not require any changes to national legislation, whereas the other main legal instrument, the Directive, can only be implemented through national legislation in each member state.

Presumably this means that when we officially leave the EU, none of the Regulations governing food safety will apply and we will have no legal protection whatsoever against contaminated foods until Parliament gets around to creating some new laws. Given the workload that will results from having to suddenly replace 40 years worth of European Regulations with British ones across every economic sector, that is likely to take some time. Any British food business wanting to export to the EU will still have to meet its legal requirements and most will surely continue to operate to the same standards that they do now. But it is easy to imagine that some less scrupulous operators might start to cut corners for the domestic market, safe in the knowledge that they will face no legal sanctions if they cut one too many.

Then there is the question of EU-funded research. Despite years of cuts, the UK science base is still strong and scientific institutions here play important roles in many projects initiated and funded from Brussels. This is certainly true for food safety research. While being located in a non-member state is not a complete barrier to receiving EU funding, it will hardly help British Universities and research organisations compete against their fellows in Germany, France, the Netherlands and so on for a slice of the funding pie.

That brings me to my own personal experience of the EU. About 15 years ago I was asked by my then employer to take over the coordination of an EU-funded project to develop information resources about mycotoxins in food. The project had its ups and downs, but eventually succeeded in meeting all its objectives and published a range of online guidance designed to help food producers detect and control mycotoxins in cereals and other foods. One abiding memory of that brief phase in my professional life is of sitting around a table in Brussels with expert scientists from a dozen different countries discussing how best to achieve our common aims. Several hours later we had agreed a plan and a timetable for making those aims a reality. That, in microcosm, is surely what the EU should be all about. The fact that my fellow citizens have seen fit to opt Britain out of such cooperative endeavours makes me very sad indeed.