Outcomes from a workshop have shown that people don’t want diverging food safety standards between nations in the United Kingdom, according to research published by the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

Reasons given for these views include thinking it would mean additional complications for businesses and consumers, impact trade, and lead to mistakes in food production and manufacturing. However, there was some support for regulatory divergence- both from the EU and across UK nations- if it reduced prices.

Research was conducted with 78 people from England, Wales, and Northern Ireland who participated in four online workshops in January and February 2023.

Participants were surprised when told that food regulations could be devolved across the UK. This stemmed from a belief that food safety is unlikely to require national variation.  

Views toward regulatory divergence from EU legislation differed depending on attitudes toward the UK leaving the European Union. Those more optimistic about the exit focused on the potential benefits of reducing bureaucracy and lowering consumer costs. Those more pessimistic about it felt any changes could lead to increased costs, more significant confusion, and business complications.

People’s main concerns
People did not always understand the need for regulatory divergence and questioned the motivations behind different approaches. They worried trust in the FSA could be eroded if the public was not clear as to why regulations differed, and it could lead to suggestions that the UK was not prioritizing food safety in the same way as the EU. 

There was concern that regulatory divergence could impact how much the UK exports to the EU and other countries. Imports could also be affected, resulting in shortages if food produced elsewhere did not meet changed UK regulations.

After discussing four hypothetical scenarios, participants were most open to regulatory divergence on products and activities seen as low risk or having little impact on perceived safety. Product types deemed low risk included fruit and vegetables. Participants felt that divergence concerning meat or fish was riskier.

Changes to temperature were seen as less significant than other examples, including those related to inspection, animal welfare, or foodborne disease.

Participants had greater concerns if divergence impacted the contents of food rather than the way it was processed or stored. Changes to regulations involving adding ingredients to food or releasing chemicals within packaging were widely seen as more concerning. 

Meat sector focus
An earlier project looked at regulatory divergence in the meat sector. Seventy-six participants from England, Wales, and Northern Ireland participated in 14 online focus groups in July and August 2022. They believed meat needed to be more stringently regulated than vegetables because of perceived higher health risks if something went wrong.

Participants had not considered the extent to which the FSA is involved in the official control process. They were surprised at the scale of the meat industry in the UK, both in terms of the number of animals slaughtered and the hours spent on inspection each year.

Participants were largely unaware of the continuous presence of Official Veterinarians (OVs) and Meat Hygiene Inspectors (MHIs) at abattoirs. They found this reassuring, and it led to initial resistance to potential changes that regulatory divergence might bring. 

Respondents were skeptical about the motivations for regulatory divergence and were against it if changes were to save business costs. There were also concerns that changes were being made for political reasons to show the UK had left the EU rather than to support companies or consumers. People were more accepting if they felt divergence could reduce the burden on food businesses.

Participants did not understand why there would be a need or desire for rules to differ between UK nations. They said having a consistent regulatory regime would be less confusing and reduce complexity for consumers, businesses, and the FSA. Some feared regulatory divergence was an ongoing process that could result in a gradual lowering of standards. 

Respondents said it was important the FSA informed the public about proposed changes to the regulatory framework but said it was down to individuals to research the specific details. 

When introduced to examples, participants argued that lower water temperatures for washing tools were a small change compared to trained plant staff or artificial intelligence replacing the inspection role of OVs in abattoirs.

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