Food safety in a post-Brexit UK

Erik Millstone examines the precarious nature of food safety in the UK after the Brexit referendum and points out that prevention is always better than cure.

Food safety in the UK, in our globalised industrial era, depends on three things:

  1. The UK’s statutory regulations and standards
  2. Corporate compliance with those regulations and standards, both in the UK and across our entire supply chain
  3. The active enforcement of those rules and standards on farms, in abattoirs and meat-cutting plants, at food processors, in distribution, retail and food service.

In the UK, post-Brexit, those elements are particularly dependent on the following:

  1. Food Standards Agency (FSA) and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) and their expert advisory panels
  2. Commercial priorities, policies and practices
  3. Local authority enforcement officers – particularly, environmental health officers (EHO), trading standards officers and public analysts.

The budgets and personnel available to local authorities for food law enforcement have suffered conspicuous cuts as a result of austerity policies. UnChecked estimated in 2020 that between 2009 and 2019, funding for EHOs declined in real terms by 32 percent.1 The number of staff employed by local authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to enforce food law fell by 38 percent in those 10 years. Funding for the FSA fell, over that interval, by 51 percent in real terms. When in 1944 Eisenhower was Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, he is reported to have remarked that: “The uninspected deteriorates”. That insight is no less true now than it was then.