Plans to speed up regulatory approval could affect lab-grown meat, novel foods and CBD – but some argue the move will come too late

Speeding up the time it takes CBD products, insect proteins and lab-grown meat to get to market wasn’t played up much by the Vote Leave campaign as a benefit of exiting the EU.

But the UK’s ability to set its own regulatory agenda for thousands of innovative new technologies previously bogged down in Brussels’ infamous red tape, has since been touted as one of the alleged gains of the referendum result.

Yet food companies still face an average wait of two-and-a-half years for approval, with hundreds of products in a potentially multibillion-pound industry stuck in the queue.

So can new proposals from the FSA to shake up the system really make the UK a centre of world innovation in food tech, or have we been left behind?

The sweeping changes put forward cover an array of sectors under the banner of regulated foods, including food additives, animal feed additives and flavourings.

A handful of sectors, including GM foods, novel foods such as insects, the growing wave of CBD products and most recently applications for meat grown in a lab, are dominating the debate.

The FSA wants MPs to axe regulations that currently contribute to a logjam of 470 applications. This would do away with the requirement for MPs to pass a statutory instrument as part of the approval process and replace it with a publicly available official register of products cleared by the FSA with ministerial approval. It would also scrap the requirement for 10-year re-approvals for the likes of smoke flavourings, feed additives and GM food.

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The FSA pledges for regulatory shake-up

  1. We will protect public health. There will be no reduction in food safety or standards.
  2. We will protect consumer interests when making regulatory decisions.
  3. We will continue to set high standards for evidence, working collaboratively with others.
  4. We will be open and transparent. We will continue to publish our risk assessments and the basis for our regulatory decisions.
  5. We will streamline our regulatory process. We will design an agile, responsive, future-proofed service.
  6. We will facilitate innovation and enterprise. Our regulatory environment will be able to evolve with the developing food system.
  7. We will strive for four-country working. We will minimise divergence within the UK and aim to have a common approach to regulatory reform.

Source: FSA board paper, March 2024

Trusting other regulators

But it is the FSA’s plans to start relying on the approval of other countries’ regulators that have raised eyebrows the most.

In the case of cultured meat, this could see the regulators look to countries such as the US, Singapore and Israel, which have already approved it.

“Clearly when another trusted regulator that follows the same high standards we do has done the work, it makes perfect sense for us to take account of that,” says FSA director of policy Rebecca Sudworth. “There is no good reason for us to repeat good quality work.”

It is reasoning that might not wash with the politicians of Italy, which has banned lab-produced meat and a string of other synthetic foods before they get anywhere near shelves.

The FSA is well aware it could face a political and consumer backlash, not just on cultured meat but on other areas too.

It could also reopen old wounds for GM foods, which are still bitterly opposed by some.

The FSA has expressed its hope MPs will approve its plans before the election, in a move that could appeal to Tory backbenchers. It requires only secondary rather than primary legislation, which the FSA wants in place by January 2025.

“We are now absolutely moving forward with these legislative proposals,” says Sudworth. “We’ll need to carry out a consultation and get ministerial approval and we’re going to have to work very quickly if we are going to get this legislation laid before any general election.

“But we have an opportunity under the retained EU law powers and the government has been really clear that where there are opportunities to remove things that are not required or disproportionate, they are keen this happens.”

The FSA and its counterpart north of the border, Food Standards Scotland, are drawing up a list of international collaborators to use in enabling products to hit UK shelves.

“These proposals are about being effective and efficient and making the best use of public money and it will release resources to focus on other products,” insists Sudworth, adding: “Safety will always be at the heart of everything we do.”

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But the wide range of products involved gives the FSA problems. First, how will it prioritise which of the sectors are most in need of fast-forwarding to market? And how will it prevent a flare-up of controversy over just one of them from paralysing the process for all?

The rollout of CBD products has already been a rollercoaster, including the FSA’s decision last year to cut the recommended approved dose.

“CBD is a classic example of the sort of thing that could scupper this,” says a source. “The FSA’s plans would remove any political licence from approvals for things like CBD products and I can imagine some politicians will not like that, even if it’s doubtful whether politicians being involved does anything to improve public safety.”

Nevertheless, the source says, for many the FSA plans are long overdue. “The approvals process at the moment is very frustrating, not least having to wait months for MPs to pass a statutory instrument even when a product has been approved.

“I also suspect Rishi Sunak has a campaign poster that says something like ‘Thanks to Brexit we’ve… fill in the gaps here.’ At the moment, when it comes to food and drink, pretty much all we’ve got is that we can now sell wine in pints. To be honest, that is a bit of a joke.

“While cultured meat, GM products and insects may not be to everyone’s taste, t There is an obvious incentive for government to be seen to be supporting British industry to innovate and create new green jobs.”

lab grown meat

Significant step change for regulated food

Katrina Anderson, associate director for Osborne Clarke LLP, believes “the proposals should mean a significant step-change in the speed at which regulated food products can be brought to market in the UK.

“This promises to be a great first step towards making the UK an attractive market for innovative food startups looking to launch the next-generation of more sustainable proteins.”

Linus Pardoe, UK policy manager at think tank the Good Food Institute, says: “More than two years after reforms were promised to how the UK regulates new alternative proteins, it is positive to see the Food Standards Agency taking sensible measures to modernise its process while continuing to enforce one of the world’s most robust regulatory systems.

“Alternative proteins could be a game-changer in helping the UK achieve its science superpower ambitions and boost food security, and while regulators must play a crucial role in ensuring consumers have confidence in these foods, regulatory frameworks must keep pace with innovation.”

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Richard Dillon, CEO of Ivy Farm, one of two companies with cultured meat applications going through the existing UK approval system also supports the new approach. “The talented FSA team put safety first and we fully agree – outdated EU bureaucracy can be ditched. Singapore, the US, and Israel have already approved cultivated meat for sale and are carving a niche. The UK can follow suit with the FSA’s new approach. And an Oxford Economics report predicts a £2.1 billion economic boost and over 16,500 jobs if the UK becomes a frontrunner.

“The UK relies heavily on meat imports (over £7 billion annually), often from countries with lower animal welfare standards and higher carbon footprints. Cultivated meat can break this dependence and offer a sustainable, locally produced alternative. [Whereas] lagging behind in regulation could turn the UK into an importer of cultivated meat – a missed opportunity. The FSA’s plan has the potential to propel the UK to the forefront of producing safe, delicious, and sustainable cultivated meat for domestic and international markets.”

Mosa Meat created fie

The FSA ‘don’t want to be seen to be coming last’

But some say that ship has already sailed. The fact only two cultured meat applications are in process shows “the companies creating these products are not sitting around in the UK waiting for the FSA”, says one source. “They are already out in the US, Singapore and Israel. Their plan A is not in the UK.

“The reality is the UK is already miles behind and it’s losing the race in quite a few food tech sectors.”

“Meanwhile we import net £7bn of meat, much of which is from places like Brazil, which has a lower standard of welfare than the UK.”

The FSA’s move, believes the source, is not so much about the UK becoming a world leader in food tech but avoiding falling even further behind than the EU, where many of the same conversations are taking place about novel foods and their potential role in food security.

“The FSA is not so much worried about being a world leader,” says the source. “What they don’t want is to be seen to be coming last.”

We don’t yet know how many months are to go until the election, but if MPs are to approve the FSA’s plans before then, the pressure is on. Meanwhile, alarm bells are ringing for those who believe an opportunity created by the UK’s legislative independence is in danger of being squandered.