susanjebb FSA

While all eyes were on No 10 on Tuesday as Rishi Sunak became the UK’s new prime minister, down the road MPs were debating the Brexit Freedoms Bill – a piece of legislation that could have profound implications for public health and businesses alike.

The Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill – to give it its full title – was introduced in September to allow ministers to replace EU regulations and directives with new domestic legislation. It will ‘sunset’ any remaining laws at the end of 2023, meaning they will be repealed automatically unless it’s decided to extend, preserve or replace them beforehand.

Reviewing these laws will be a big task for government departments. So far, the Food Standards Agency has identified more than 150 pieces of law on food and feed safety and standards in England and Wales, many of which are intertwined with UK legislation on food, and legislation held by other government departments.

Throughout the process of leaving the EU, the FSA was clear that ensuring food is safe and what it says it is would remain our number one priority. As we continue to manage the consequences of Brexit, including the process of reviewing retained EU law, these principles remain.

While Brexit has presented us with opportunities to choose to do things differently, the timeframe set out by the government is tight and the scale of the task is immense. The FSA cannot simply sunset the laws for which it is responsible without a decline in food standards and a risk to public health.

We’ve heard from industry that a settled regimen for food safety, hygiene and composition law is good for growth. We need to uphold the UK reputation for safe, high-quality food by meeting, or exceeding, our international obligations. This means we must secure and settle the body of law that underpins food and feed hygiene, composition and safety across the country.

But we know that some regulatory changes could help regulators be more effective in upholding high food standards on behalf of UK consumers. We want to better support innovation that makes food healthier and more sustainable. We want to improve what data and information is available to the FSA and local authorities so that we can be proportionate and risk-based in our inspections and drive up standards. We want to make sure that enforcement resource is targeted at the biggest food risks at home and abroad. These changes will also make it easier for businesses to meet their responsibilities to protect public health and keep consumers informed about their food.

In due course, we think a new UK Food and Feed Bill would be the best way to do this. But such a bill needs time to develop, particularly as food and feed safety are devolved matters and we think it important to avoid unnecessary divergence. Our experience tells us that co-producing policy in an evidence-based, open and transparent way is better for consumers and for businesses, but it takes time to get it right.

No one should underestimate the significance of this review of retained EU law. Whichever path we take – whether we extend, preserve or replace EU law – it is going to put a strain on FSA resources, and we will need to make difficult decisions to deprioritise some other pieces of work. We will need to work closely with industry and civil society groups to draw on all the knowledge and experience in the food system to do the very best we can for people across the UK.