The European Commission has said it is prepared for the impact a no deal scenario in the Brexit negotiations would have on food safety.

The United Kingdom held a referendum in June 2016 and voted to leave the European Union, a move that became known as Brexit. This was supposed to happen at the end of March 2019 but was delayed until 12 April.

Jyrki Katainen, VP of the Commission, responsible for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness, said health and food safety have an impact on citizens’ daily lives and the functioning of businesses.

“Let there be no doubt whatsoever: a no deal scenario would be extremely costly and disruptive. The economic consequences would have a significant impact on the UK, and to a lesser extent the EU,” he said.

“Together with the member states, the Commission continuously monitors the situation regarding public health risks. If there is no deal, we cannot rely on the fact that the UK used to be a member state the day before.”

New controls at borders

Katainen, who is also currently in charge of the Health and Food Safety portfolio instead of Vytenis Andriukaitis who is running for president of Lithuania, said the EU has been preparing for a no deal scenario in health and food safety since December 2017.

“When the UK leaves the EU, it will be confronted with an obstacle we got rid of a long time ago: borders. Borders are not there to add red tape or slow things down. They are there to ensure that the food we eat is not a danger for our citizens…New controls will have to be carried out at our borders with the UK.”

Member states are setting up Border Inspection Posts (BIPs) which are being approved by the Commission.

“Member states have also recruited the necessary staff to handle customs and safety checks. More than 2,000 professionals have been recruited in the countries most affected (France, Belgium, Ireland, Netherlands, Denmark),” said Katainen.

“We are taking the necessary measures to allow UK products and animals still to enter the EU provided the UK has adopted the relevant new legislation and the necessary food safety conditions are met. For example, in order to be able to export products of animal origin to the EU, the UK has to be ‘listed’ by the Commission as a third country authorized to export and the food needs to satisfies all EU food safety requirements.”

Progress but more planning needed

In a letter sent last week to the European Commission, Copa and Cogeca, CELCAA and FoodDrinkEurope, on behalf of the EU agri-food chain, said that some additional actions were needed to mitigate the “potentially devastating” impact a no deal Brexit could have on the European agri-food industry.

The organizations requested temporary facilitated procedures for EU agri-food products that would allow goods to be cleared at the premises of the operator, mutual recognition of SPS certification (food safety and phytosanitary) by the EU and UK, as well as preparation of a plan to support specific productions such as livestock.

The UK will lose access to the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) after Brexit and the future relationship with the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) remains unclear, according to Steve Brine when questioned recently by a parliamentary committee. The former public health and primary care minister resigned at the end of March due to Brexit.

A closer relationship?

The UK may adopt a customs union model as part of a deal with the European Union. Agreeing on this with the EU would mean a continuation of zero tariffs on goods being traded across the Irish border but would not address the need for product safety and standards checks on items such as food.

Currently, the UK is a member of the single market that harmonizes safety and quality standards with the EU and leads to the existing situation of no checks on the Northern Irish border.

Gary McFarlane, Northern Ireland director at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH), said the debate seems to have “danced around” the vital issue of food safety and standards.

“If the UK leaves the single market, the EU will insist on product standard checks for goods moving between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. To not do so would threaten the integrity and safety of the EU safety and standards model,” he said.

“It is a sad reality that criminals will seek to exploit any weaknesses that exist, and the lack of controls would represent such a weakness. To have no controls would compromise public protection.

“Customs arrangements also do not obviate the need for new certification for any food products containing animal products moving from Northern Ireland to Ireland. Without appropriate arrangements agreed this will result in a very significant workload increase for both veterinarians and Environmental Health Professionals that cannot currently be resourced.”

CIEH represents almost 8,000 members working in the public, private and non-profit environmental health sectors.

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