Food fraud risk in UK’s no-deal Brexit plans

A UK plan to suspend food regulations in the event of a no-deal Brexit could alert criminals to opportunities for food fraud, says a new report.

The document says that while suspension of controls could be seen as sensible contingency planning – for example if there are any delays to imports of perishable foods at the UK’s borders - it could signal a “cavalier approach to public health” that in turn could threaten exports from the UK to the EU.

This is not ‘taking back control’, it is abandoning it, says the report, entitled Feeding Britain: Food security after Brexit and authored by food, science and environmental policy experts Prof Tim Lang (City University), Prof Erik Millstone (Sussex University), Tony Lewis (Chartered Institute of Environmental Health) and Prof Terry Marsden (Cardiff University).

“Consumers would rightly wonder who was guaranteeing the safety and quality of the imported food they were buying,” says Lang.

A key recommendation in the wide-ranging report – which takes stock of how food, food security and food regulation are being addressed by the UK government in the Brexit discussions – is that a hard ‘food Brexit’ must be avoided at all costs, as under World Trade Organization (WTO) rules the UK would be categorised as a third country.

“This might benefit some hedge funds or traders, but at the cost of undermining the quantity and quality of the UK’s food supply,” the report asserts.

It also questions whether food policy has attracted enough attention in the Brexit deliberations so far, particularly with regard to the importance of migrant workers to UK food producers, and says that the latest Chequers white paper proposing close alignment with the EU only for farming and manufacturing, but not for retail or food service “injects a fault-line into the UK food system between production and service sectors.”

Lang et al are also deeply concerned that the Food Standards Agency’s decision to press ahead with major reform of UK food safety regulation is “an additional, unnecessary risk… at a time when a stable regulatory regime should be in place as the basis of trade and Brexit negotiations.”

The document notes that the EU is the source of 30 per cent of food for the UK, and says the country must have “a new policy for the UK’s food system, from agriculture to consumption, which is genuinely sustainable, Brexit or no Brexit.”

It’s not the first report to suggest that food safety standards could be at risk in a no-deal Brexit. Earlier this year, the Local Government Association, which represents 370 councils in England and Wales, said losing access to shared intelligence resources and traceability information could raise the risk of incidents such as the horsemeat scandal happening again.

“Exiting the EU without agreement on this matter would leave regulators in limbo in March 2019, and even under the terms of the draft EU-UK withdrawal agreement, access to such databases would be switched off post-2020,” it suggested.

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