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What You Need to Know About Brexit and Food Safety

Posted in Food Policy,Food Safety on January 20, 2019

A former environment minister in the United Kingdom has said that the country’s food safety may be compromised by a free trade agreement with the United States, according to reporting by The Guardian. Lord Deben, who served as environmental minister under Margaret Thatcher, has warned that importation of food rated at US food safety standards to the UK would compromise the country’s food safety. What does this mean for Brexit and Food Safety?

Food safety is the latest flashpoint as Britain draws closer to March 29th — the date of their scheduled departure from the European Union, kicking off a two-year transitional period. Because the EU negotiates trade deals as a bloc, the UK’s withdrawal requires a wholesale re-negotiation with many of the countries that they trade with.

One new trade deal would be with the United States. Such an agreement is likely to be a trade accord in line with the North American or Central American Free Trade Agreements – light on tariffs, duties, and other taxes, so as to grease the wheels of commerce between the two countries. Such agreements often relax the requirements or standards in place for one kind of product or another so that they can more easily be traded between the countries in question.

Lord Deben, who is also known as John Selwyn Gummer, isn’t the first politician in the United Kingdom who’s concerned that Brexit may compromise the safety of food there. Previously, environmental and trade secretaries in Theresa May’s cabinet have clashed over the question of whether the importation of chlorine-washed chicken from the United States should be allowed. As things stand right now, chlorine-washed chicken is produced in the United States, but it isn’t allowed in the European Union. The Guardian writes that “the EU bans the practice because it says abattoirs could come to rely on it as a decontaminant and unscrupulous producers could use it to make meat appear fresher.”

Another fear is that US chicken will be sold at a price that’s low enough to undermine producers in UK. The United States produces a lot of chicken, which means that the meat is often cheaper there than it is across the pond. A free trade deal that doesn’t account for that disparity may have a negative effect on chicken farmers there. But would that reduce campylobacter in chicken?

In May of 2018, the Local Government Association in the United Kingdom warned that Brexit might put food safety in danger, according to reporting from The Guardian at the time. The group, which represents hundreds of town councils in England and Wales, has said that any post-Brexit deal that doesn’t include strong provisions for the sharing of food intelligence across borders could make for a future in which the United Kingdom’s food supply is less secure than it is today.

As things are right now, the UK is part of the European Union’s food safety apparatus. That means that alerts about potential contamination, outbreaks, or recalls are handled through a standardized regulatory infrastructure that governs the entire EU.

Provided that a Brexit deal is reached and the UK withdraws on March 29th in accordance with Article 49, they’ll have to figure out what comes next. The Local Government Association’s concern is that the deal must contain a provision for intelligence-sharing that allows UK regulators access to the European Union’s food safety information. If the regulators don’t have access to the system and the updates therein, navigating the safety of food imports could become a lot more difficult.

“If we lose access to these databases, we will lose access to vital intelligence about the origin of food, feed and animal products, and won’t be aware when rapid alerts are issued to the rest of the continent. This will significantly weaken our ability to effectively protect the food system, increasing the risk of a new scandal and undermining public confidence in the food industry,” LGA’s Brexit task force chairman Kevin Bentley told the Guardian.

A white paper from Leatherhead Food Research has also raised several concerns about food safety and Brexit – principally, at the frictionless border at Dover. If border inspections or more paperwork is required there, then the trade of some products are almost certain to be affected. Leatherhead named chilled products, soft cheese, meat, and salad as four potential categories that could be compromised by additionally processing time at Dover.

Leatherhead proposes a solution to regulatory friction in a technology you may have heard of before: RFID, or radio frequency identification. They write that it could “all provide mechanisms to speed processing across borders, whilst at the same time improve transmission of data associated with food ingredients and raw food commodities, thereby potentially reducing the likelihood of food fraud.”

RFID is mostly the business of affixing small chips to food that can communicate information about that food – the date and location of the last time it was inspected, for example, or the results of the the last pathogen screening that it underwent.

Such technology might make things a bit simpler at the border, but the real task of navigating food safety in a post-Brexit world looks almost unaccountably complex. Britain is faced with the task of remaking much of their trade infrastructure. An endeavor like that is hard enough without having to weigh the patchwork of food safety standards outside the European Union and reconcile products like chlorinated chicken with a producers and consumers who demand high-quality food, strict food safety standards, and the easy access to information about outbreaks and recalls they currently enjoy in the EU. Watch this space for more news about the ongoing process of negotiation and ratification for Brexit and the trade deals that will follow.

By: Sean McNulty, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)