Food standards and safety after the United Kingdom exits the European Union next year have been put under the spotlight again by the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health and Food Research Collaboration.
The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) and Lord Steven Bassam of the Labor party criticized the government for its approach toward food safety in the UK post-Brexit from March next year. CIEH represents more than 8,000 members working in the public, private and non-profit environmental health sectors.
A separate report as part of the FRC’s Food Brexit Briefing series, co-authored by professors at the University of Sussex and City, University of London, warned that legalizing hormone-reared beef as part of trade deal concessions would introduce an “unacceptable” risk to public health.
The CIEH said there has been pressure on the government to clarify its approach to regulations and maintaining the UK’s food supply after Brexit; specifically in a “no deal” scenario. The government has said it will make sure that Britain has enough food and will not compromise food safety standards.
CIEH said “vague statements” from ministers has led to fears the government will suspend food regulation in the UK in the event of a “no deal” with the EU as well as ceasing inspection of imports at Britain’s borders to speed up supply lines.
When pressed on the issue by Lord Bassam in a House of Lords debate this week, the minister Lord James O’Shaughnessy of the Conservative party, repeated the government is committed to high food standards but did not give more details. Members of the House of Lords are not voted for by the public. They debate laws proposed by Members of Parliament (MPs) and suggest changes. Members in the House of Commons are elected and it is the main place for law making.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has opened a comment period until Oct. 14 on the approach to converting EU law for food and feed safety into UK law ahead of next year.
In preparation for a no deal scenario the government has published 25 technical notices. Farming and organic food production featured in this first batch.
Lord Bassam said it is another example of the government not dealing with an issue in the correct manner.
“Either they have a plan and will not reveal it, or they are hoping to muddle through and improvise when the time comes. Either way, this is not good enough. Parliament, industry, and the British people, deserve an answer,” Bassam said.
Anne Godfrey, chief executive of CIEH, said it was disappointed by the minister’s refusal to engage on the issue.
“The country needs urgent clarification from the government on what it intends to do going to prepare for a post-Brexit landscape. There is already great uncertainty at our ports, and within our supply chains, and it is high time the government explained their thinking so we can prepare,” she said.
Hormone use: A test case for UK
The report on hormone-treated beef by Professors Erik Millstone and Tim Lang was published by the Food Research Collaboration.
The pair call on ministers to ensure UK food safety standards will not be weakened to secure trade agreements. They also urge UK farmers, supermarkets and butchers to make commitments to consumers never to produce or sell hormone-treated beef.
Hormone use is permitted in cattle rearing by U.S., Canadian, Mexican and Australian authorities, but beef from hormone-treated cattle has been banned in the EU since the early 1980s. Permitting sale of hormone-reared beef will result in barriers to UK companies wishing to export products to the EU’s Single Market.
Earlier this week, the European Commission proposed trade talks with the U.S. on import levels of hormone-free beef. An agreement from 2009 allows suppliers including the U.S. to export 45,000 tons per year of such product to the EU. The previous U.S. administration started pushing for changes to the 2009 deal, which was revised in 2014.
The report states there is scientific evidence showing meat produced using one hormone, 17β-oestradiol, increases the cancer risk to consumers, while for others the evidence is insufficient to show use is safe. Synthetic hormones are used in high-intensity beef production systems, where treated cattle gain weight faster for a given amount of food, so reach slaughter weight at lower cost.
It adds that if UK standards were weakened, one effect will be that beef from cattle given growth-boosting hormones could enter the food supply and the meat will not be labeled on how it had been produced, while, hormone-treated beef remains prohibited in the EU. If the UK allows import of hormone-produced beef, domestic producers will demand a level playing field and will also use the hormones to cut costs.
A government spokesperson said it would not compromise on food safety to secure trade deals.
“The Environment Secretary has been absolutely clear that we will not water down our high food safety and animal welfare standards as a result of any future free trade agreements. Artificial growth hormones are banned in both domestic production and imported meats. This will remain the case when we leave the European Union.”
Erik Millstone, professor of science policy at the University of Sussex, said trade requires shared rules and minimum standards.
“The idea that, once the UK leaves the EU, it will become a rule-maker, not a rule-taker, is illusory. The choice is: Which rules to take – the EU’s, the United States’ or the World Trade Organization’s? Food standards in the EU are far higher than those in the U.S., and U.S. standards are far higher than WTO standards. The UK should at least stick to EU; the only changes allowed should be to make food safer, never less safe,” he said.
The report warns that Public Health England, the FSA and Environment Agency will require a significant increase in funding, something which no minister has committed to so far.
Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City, University of London, said: “There is a triple risk here: to health, to British beef farmers’ livelihoods, and to the UK’s ability to determine its own food safety standards. Hormone use would be a stupid step towards intensive beef feeding lots.”
Millstone and Lang added the government should ensure food safety standards remain aligned with prevailing EU rules or raise them higher.
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