Members of a parliamentary committee have called for greater clarity about food safety after the United Kingdom leaves the European Union.

The House of Lords Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee is looking at how the Food and Feed Safety and Hygiene (FFSH) framework will work alongside the UK Internal Market Bill, which is a proposal to ensure goods can move freely in the countries of the UK.

Baroness Kay Andrews, chair of the committee and a Labour peer, has again written to Emily Miles, chief executive of the Food Standards Agency (FSA). The first letter was in mid-October with the FSA reply in early November.

The FSA has not provided sufficient clarity around the UK Internal Market Bill, according to the committee.

“As your letter makes clear, risk decisions are the responsibility of health ministers in each administration, who may choose to agree divergent approaches and as such have different safety standards. The ability for businesses to circumvent agreed differences in national rules appears to fundamentally undermine the framework,” said Andrews.

Questions for the FSA
Market access principles in the Internal Market Bill will mean that products placed on the market of only one country could now legally be sold into others in the UK. The FSA said this is not expected to pose a food safety risk because action taken locally should ensure such items are safe.

The committee also asked for greater precision on the dispute settlement process to deal with issues of divergence; suggested ways to resolve disputes relating to the Northern Ireland Protocol and the timetable for parliamentary scrutiny of the framework.

Common Frameworks help governments agree on regulatory consistency for policy areas where returning EU powers have been devolved to Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish governments. The FFSH framework is intended to be agreed and signed by ministers by the end of the transition period on Dec. 31 this year. The aim is to maintain similar approaches to food and feed safety and hygiene policy, unless there is an evidence-based, public health need for them to be different.

Scotland’s ban on raw milk falls under an existing arrangement and would not be affected by the Internal Market Bill. However, if another country wished to later introduce a ban on raw drinking milk it is not clear how this would work. In the rest of the UK, raw milk sales are permitted.

It is still not known if the UK will have full access to the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) as terms are still being discussed in the ongoing UK-EU negotiations.

Stakeholder engagement by the FSA on framework proposals in early October involved the Food and Drink Federation, British Retail Consortium, consumer group Which?, National Farmers Union Scotland and others.

Devolved nations issues
The Internal Market Bill, which is currently being debated in the House of Lords, has already met criticism from Scotland and Wales. An example of how it could work is if Welsh Parliament legislation prohibits the sale of genetically modified (GM) food in Wales, while there is no such prohibition in England, the principle of mutual recognition would mean that it would be lawful for producers in England to sell GM food in Wales, despite the Welsh Parliament ruling.

Food Standards Scotland (FSS) expressed concerns over the potential adverse impact the bill could have on consumers’ food interests.

Ross Finnie, FSS chair, said it would impact the agency’s ability to ensure transparency in food safety and standards.

“The bill needs to do more to advance the protection of consumers. Cost reduction is not the sole determinant when it comes to public health protection as lessons from previous major food incidents demonstrate. Further, if consumer interest is defined solely by cost then inevitably it will drive down standards, because lower standards are less costly,” he said.

“At no point has legislative underpinning been identified as necessary, particularly as there has been no evidence to demonstrate ways in which bodies such as FSS are currently unable to protect consumers in relation to food.”

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)