The FSA’s new CEO is well equipped to handle the coronavirus crisis, with work to ensure safety and supply underway. Not forgetting Brexit, of course

I look back and think, ‘how could I have thought ‘no deal’ was going to be massive? THIS is massive.” Food Standards Agency CEO Emily Miles is talking, of course, about Covid-19.

Prior to joining the FSA last September, Miles was at Defra, heading up the department’s domestic preparations for an EU exit. Before that, she worked for almost 15 years in home affairs, including stints in the Home Office, Downing Street and Cabinet Office, as well as several years as an advisor to Tony Blair.

Brexit was “the most fascinating, intense, supercharged learning moment of my career,” she says. It was also a big factor behind her move to the FSA, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. “I thought the FSA would be an extremely interesting place come our departure from the EU, because we’ve taken on responsibilities from the Commission and the European Food Safety Authority,” she adds. “It’s a great moment for the FSA to step up and come of age.”

But, just as is the case for PM Boris Johnson, Miles’ first year in office isn’t turning out as she expected. Because as the global coronavirus outbreak continues to worsen, putting unprecedented strain on UK food supply chains, Brexit is taking a back seat.

Although the evidence suggests Covid-19 is “highly unlikely to be spread through food”, the outbreak has significant potential implications for food safety. “If there are significant staff shortages anywhere in the food chain - from delivery drivers, to abattoirs, to testing labs - there can be food safety implications,” says Miles. “Also if food supplies are repurposed at short notice then there are risks around maintaining accurate ingredients lists and traceability information.”

“If there are significant staff shortages anywhere in the food chain, there can be food safety implications”

As a result, it’s fast become priority number one for the FSA, which recently published joint advice with Defra to assist food businesses trying to navigate the coronavirus crisis. It is also working with the food industry to make sure businesses are aware of their responsibilities when it comes to maintaining safety standards and protecting staff. “Food businesses take this very seriously and I’ve been impressed at how much care I am seeing,” says Miles.

With the FSA also facing the possibility of “significant staff absence”, the months ahead will no doubt be a huge challenge for the regulator, as well as industry.

Thankfully, the years spent leading no-deal planning at Defra mean Miles is well-equipped to handle such a fast-moving situation. “I learnt a lot from that: the need for wide sharing of information at high frequency because the implications unfold fast; the need for swift issue escalation and resolution; the importance of marrying delivery skills with policy and legal skills; the fact that you can’t anticipate everything.”

Supply chains

And the FSA has already kicked off decisive work to ensure food supply chains can keep moving during the crisis. One particular area of focus has been meat hygiene inspection, says Miles. “We have people in every abattoir and meat plant in England, Wales and NI on the line checking that meat is safe.”

Just like the NHS has asked former doctors, nurses and midwives to return to service, the FSA is looking to coax former meat hygiene inspectors back into plants. It is also considering “possible changes we can make in the way we implement the rules to make them less onerous”, she adds.

To ensure that food on the shelves remains safe to eat, the FSA has also “taken action to ensure that non-essential activities can be deprioritised, so that critical food safety duties can be carried out,” Miles says. “This includes deferring meat premises audits for highly compliant sites, and advising local authorities to take action to reduce non-essential activity.”

It’s taking a similar approach to ease the burden on office-based staff, who are now working remotely. With restaurant and cafés forced to close, plans for an allergen awareness campaign for small businesses have already been put on hold. “We are really sad about it, but it’s absolutely the right thing to do. We will refresh it when the time is right,” says Miles.

The FSA has also paused consultations with industry on “anything that is not Covid-19 related” and is reviewing “all other programmes” including its ‘achieving business compliance’ programme, looking in particular at modernising local authority controls and intelligence, and its operations transformation - which was about moving to more flexible arrangements in meat plants. “For these, we will prioritise anything that we think helps the Covid-19 effort,” says Miles. “Decisions on the remainder will be made once we have a sense of how much remaining capacity we have.”

 

Snapshot

Age: 45

Family: Married to Paul since 2001, two teenage children, one six-month old puppy called Leelu.

Potted CV: 15 years working largely on home affairs issues, before moving to Defra in late 2015 and co-ordinating its work on the domestic consequences of EU exit. Moved to FSA in 2019.

Worst career decision: Some decisions felt sketchy at the time (like when I agreed to lead work to close down a police arm’s length body, which was disheartening), but each one taught me invaluable lessons.

Best career decision: Staying in the Civil Service. I nearly gave up in 2015 because I felt my style didn’t fit; but in the end I found a home for my more people-centric, emotionally open approach. Plus, the work is extraordinary.

Desert island meal: Sausages with greens, creamy potatoes and onion gravy, then my Mum’s home-made treacle tart, washed down with some rioja.

 

One area of work that must continue, though, is preparing for the end of the Brexit transition period in December 2020. The FSA has a number of responsibilities in this area, Miles says. “One is making sure imported food is safe. So we are heavily involved with port authorities and making sure the food that hits our shores is safe to eat. We’ve also done a lot to enhance our strategic surveillance approach.”

Once the transition period ends, the FSA will also take on “new responsibilities around what we broadly call the risk analysis process”, she adds. “It’s got two parts - one is a product authorisation process and the other is an ability to offer considered, scientific advice on any risk that anyone wants to think about in terms of food safety or hygiene.”

The product authorisation process is “particularly significant” because “this is where novel foods, food packaging or food preparation processes like chemical washes get considered from a food safety and hygiene point of view,” she adds.

Currently, Miles says, “EFSA conducts the risk analysis, while the EU Commission does the risk management piece”. Under the new system “we’ll take on the responsibility of both EFSA and the Commission, so we’ll compile the evidence and offer advice to ministers, who will then decide to accept it or not”.

That means the FSA will be at the forefront of UK future decisions on CBD products, as well as on things like chemical washes. “This debate about chlorine washed chicken misses the fact it will be the FSA deciding whether a chemical wash is appropriate for any food consumed in the UK,” Miles notes.

In preparation, the FSA has recruited more scientists and expanded its advisory committees. One important thing it can bring to the table, says Miles, is transparency. “We will be publishing our advice to ministers, who will be taking their decisions in public.”

With Covid-19 putting a hold on UK-EU trade talks, the FSA must prepare once again for a no-deal scenario, which would require additional border checks on food and drink. That’s no small feat. But, as Miles suggests, even that doesn’t compare to the “unprecedented challenges” the coronavirus poses for us all.