FSA board asks ‘do we need to reform current food standards?’

Posted: 17 June 2020 | | No comments yet

New Food’s Editor gives her overview of the latest (17 June 2020) Food Standards Agency (FSA) board meeting.

English food

Should easements made to some food standards during the pandemic be reverted or new regulations formed? This was one of the key questions open for debate in today’s (17 June 2020) Food Standards Agency (FSA) Board meeting.

“It has been an intense period for the agency,” said Emily Miles, Chief Executive at FSA. She spoke proudly of the work both the FSA and food industry has achieved since the COVID-19 outbreak, and like all board participants, thanked them for their valiant efforts.

Miles pointed to three main areas in which the FSA has focused, including scientific assessment, communication for public and businesses, and flexibility of current standards.

With regards to scientific assessment, she highlighted the major role the agency has played in determining the risk – believed so far to be low – of contracting COVID from food. For communication, the way in which the FSA has helped support the restarting of companies; in particular, she noted the important part ease of accessibility played – ie, making it simple for companies to access materials. Finally, she mentioned the easement of official rules, which she said were mostly due to limitations around labour.  

She described COVID-19 like a “barium meal for the country”, suggesting that like the diagnostic test which shows what is and is not working inside the gut, the pandemic has highlighted gaps and areas for improvement within the food sector.

Also mentioned as an unexpected positive was the opportunity that remote inspections could bring in the future. The FSA stated that it will be “proposing a new direction”, and although it will be soon be asking authorities to move back to physical inspections, it will also be requesting initial remote inspections to be conducted. The idea is that these video audits will be used to establish the areas in sites that need attention in person.

“This is something we want to explore as part of our Modernisation programme,” one of the board members noted. 

Miles nodded towards the “commitment and flexibility” of the team and the agency’s improvements in horizon scanning as two key wins achieved by the FSA over the last few months, but admitted there have been “things that could have gone better”.

“In terms of a contingency planning, we had prepared for around 20 percent staff absence, but we had not prepared for social distancing at work. We had to work very quickly with the meat industry to find a way through that,” she explained.

Access to real-time consumer insights was another gap highlighted by the pandemic and it took several weeks for this to be resolved, according to Miles. But she did add that she is “pleased with the capabilities” they now have.

“Working across four nations to make swift decisions of devolved matters sometimes felt clunky,” Miles noted, “but we got there.”

She continued: “The EU food law that we operate is pretty inflexible and does not have the safety values that you would expect for a crisis. I hope this is something Government will turn its attention to in due course.”

A few board members voiced their agreement with this statement. We have been discussing how one might have to adapt some of the things we do – establishing when it is right to ease rulings in the case where following strident standards might hinder safety or other consumer interests, said Guy Poppy, Chief Scientific Advisory. “It is a complex system and we are being proportionate in terms of being agile and responsive as situations arise.”

Miles referred to pandemic feeling like “a sprint” at the beginning and uttered her relief that it now felt more like “a marathon”.

She said: “We are looking at where we can do double duty as Covid-19 is requiring things change. We can use that to accelerate other reforms that we had in mind.”

Miles also mentioned a somewhat disjointed structure among governments and nations. She gestured to labelling as a prime example: “Parts of the policy related to food labelling sits in several different Government departments in Whitehall. It is also a devolved matter for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.” She explained that when it came to questions around labelling during the outbreak, the FSA had to decipher quickly the remit of the FSA, the role ministers play and how they could work as one. “We need to flex that muscle more frequently,” she said. “I am speaking to Defra about how we can improve engagement and collaboration going forwards.

“This experience has taught us something different about how to run incidents in the agency. All of our plans were based on a food safety incident, rather than something that affected everything else in the country at the same time.”

She explained how the agency had to reflect rapidly on its processes in March (when lockdown began in the UK), which provided the FSA with some valuable lessons and, as a result, improved its own processes.

failed harvest

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“I do believe there may be other crises on the horizon, for example a political or climate crisis,” she cautioned. “Henry Dimbleby has warned of harvests failures across the world – if you were to have that two years in a row, it would cause significant food supply issues.”

These are challenges which we need to start considering, she urged, before mentioning that she has already asked the Vice Chair at Codex Alimentarius Commission, Steve Wearne, for his help in creating several corporate scenarios.

Queries over whether some of the current food standards are still required were also raised. ‘Are we just keeping them because they have ‘always’ been there?’ board members asked.

Is it time for UK food standards to undertake a deep review or will this prove too much change for a shaken country? 

More information on the board meeting can be found here.

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