Authorities such as the Food Standards Agency (FSA) are struggling with a skills gap after the United Kingdom left the European Union, according to a report.

The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee said there is a problem for agencies in recruiting and keeping the skills needed to regulate effectively in their new and expanded roles.

There is a shortage of veterinarians to monitor food safety and animal welfare in abattoirs and toxicologists to assess food risks and chemical safety – increasing the risks for consumers.

A lack of vets in abattoirs driven by increased demand led to temporary measures in autumn 2021 to ensure there was enough staff. FSA is reviewing the pay and conditions to make the career more attractive. About 95 percent of vets provided by Eville and Jones are from abroad.

The FSA has written to abattoir and cutting plant owners about potential changes for how controls are delivered through official veterinarians.

Junior Johnson, FSA director of operations, said: “Despite challenges in veterinary recruitment, the agency has maintained full and ongoing service delivery of official controls in abattoirs and there has been no interruption in service to date.

“Official veterinarians are however, in very short supply, and we are working with partners to find solutions to what is a systemic resourcing issue so that the FSA can continue to provide a reliable service to industry and uphold food safety, protect animal health and welfare, and enable businesses to sell food domestically and abroad.”

Reduced resources and system access

The FSA has also lost full access to the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF), which gives EU member nations food safety information. The agency estimated it requires about 65 percent more staff resource to deliver the same international information exchange.

It has also been kicked out of the Heads of Food Safety Agencies network so has refocused on the International Heads of Food Agencies Forum, which includes Australia, Ireland, Japan, Singapore, China and Saudi Arabia.

Regulators have been asked to model staff reductions of 20 percent to 40 percent. The FSA said a 20 percent cut would have a significant impact on the meat industry which cannot place meat on the market in the UK or export it without veterinary oversight. Current regulations set the role of veterinarians in meat hygiene controls and changes would need new laws.

Government delays mean the FSA will not have full import checks on high-risk food imported from the EU until the end of 2023.

Impact of different rules

Divergence between the EU and UK, and within the UK internal market offers opportunities but may make legislation less efficient and more costly for regulators, consumers, and businesses. One example is the EU ban on titanium dioxide, which is still allowed as a food additive in the UK.

Longer term plans include reforming hygiene controls in the meat industry to introduce a more risk-based approach. However, such changes could prevent meat exports to Europe if items are produced to different standards.

Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said: “Six years after the Brexit vote and with key international trade agreements still dangling years out of sight, repeated delays to implementing a new import regime continue to impact British businesses and increase risks for consumers. The effects of potential headcount reductions of up to 40 percent across government are unclear but, if implemented, would make current regulatory models unsustainable without fundamental reform including changes to legislation.

“Government’s poor preparation and planning have combined with international political realities and the result is exposure of UK consumers and businesses to greater risks and costs. Regulators and policy departments should now identify the impact of potential cuts on regulatory risk and set out where significant changes in the regulatory model would be needed to mitigate them.”

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