The United Kingdom will lose access to RASFF after Brexit and Britain’s future relationship with EFSA remains unclear, according to the British public health minister. Britain’s future trade with U.S. food companies is also a question mark, with some in the U.K. saying certain food safety practices in the United States are unacceptable.
Questioned by the British Parliament’s Energy and Environment Committee this week, Minister Steve Brine, MP, confirmed the U.K. would not be able to vote in the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed or have access to the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) after the U.K.’s exit from the European Union later this month. The planned departure is also known as Brexit.
Brine admitted it is not known what the U.K.’s relationship with the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) will be, and whether Britain will retain access to food safety risk assessment work.
Lord Robin Teverson, chair of the committee, said the lack of clarity is deeply concerning in the scenario that an agreement is reached and there is a transition period.
“During this time we will be required to follow the EU’s food safety rules and regulations, but we discovered . . . that the U.K. government has no idea whether we will have full access to EU risk assessments, or any access to their surveillance and information sharing mechanisms. This is deeply concerning,” Teverson said.
Members of the committee heard there was a significant level of uncertainty about what European Union systems the U.K. will still be part of and what it will need to do itself. The U.K. will be bound by EU food safety decisions, but Brine did not know whether it will be able to attend meetings of the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed where those decisions are made.
Brine told the committee he hoped access to RASFF could be negotiated and that the U.K. will continue to be able to work with EFSA. Committee members expressed doubts on the feasibility of that, given third-country participation is only possible if that country applies all related EU legislation.
If the U.K. leaves the European Union without a deal, all the food safety functions currently undertaken in Europe will have to be done domestically.
Britain’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) Chairwoman Heather Hancock and the U.K.’s chief veterinary officer, Christine Middlemiss, also gave evidence to the committee on how Brexit will impact food safety decision making.
Members of the committee heard the FSA was confident it has the resources needed to take on the functions of EFSA beginning March 29, if required, and additional systems and capabilities have been put in place to improve the U.K.’s surveillance capability.
“We understand that if the U.K. leaves the EU without a deal it will have to assess and manage food safety risks itself, and we were reassured by the extent of the preparations that the FSA have undertaken in this regard,” said Teverson.
Future trade deals
Minette Batters, National Farmers Union president, said it is not surprising that the U.S. wants access to the U.K.’s agricultural market and a trade deal that includes Britain accepting U.S. production standards and practices.
“It is imperative that any future trade deals, including a possible deal with the U.S., do not allow the imports of food produced to lower standards than those required of British farmers. We should not accept trade deals which allow food to be imported into this country produced in ways which would be illegal here,” Batters said.
The British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) said members are reporting that overseas customers are cancelling orders and buying product from other countries because of the lack of clarity around Brexit. The association’s leaders said this will cause disruption to the supply chain and have financial consequences for British meat companies that may struggle to win back lost business.
Nick Allen, chief executive of the BMPA, said disruption has started and damage is already being done.
“Despite numerous crisis meetings with government officials, we are still no closer to getting definitive guidance on tariffs, certification and health marks that our members desperately need. The lack of clarity around Brexit is now causing orders to be cancelled and effectively closing-off once lucrative export markets to British firms,” Allen said.
British Poultry Council CEO Richard Griffiths said the country cannot afford to lower food standards in pursuit of trade deals.
“It is insulting of the U.S. to offer trade products that do not meet our high standards of food production,” Griffiths said.
“British food producers don’t dip their chicken carcass in chlorine as we do not believe in ‘cleaning up at the end’ or taking any short-cuts when it comes to producing food to high standards. Using chemicals to disinfect food at the end of a production process can hide a multitude of sins, but what it can’t hide is the need for their use in the first place.”
In an interview on the BBC Radio 4 “Today” program this week, U.S. Ambassador to the U.K. Woody Johnson claimed the U.S. has the lowest level of food poisoning rates.
Kath Dalmeny, chief executive of Sustain, said Johnson’s statement was “simply not true.” The organization represents about 100 national public interest organizations working at international, national, regional and local levels, according to its website.
“The U.S. and U.K. governments’ own figures show that food poisoning rates in the U.S. are anything up to 10 times higher than in the U.K., and that 380 people died of Salmonella food poisoning there, compared to none over the same period in the U.K.,” Dalmeny said.
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