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Shaping post Brexit food and drink regulation

Helen Munday, Chief Scientific Officer, Food and Drink Federation, looks at some of the regulatory issues the UK food and drink industry faces as it embarks on the road to Brexit.

There have been many twists and turns on the rollercoaster they call Brexit. Those of us who work in regulatory affairs tend to appreciate stability and certainty, so the bumpy ride we’ve experienced over the last 18 months has been particularly uncomfortable! With just over a year to go until we leave the EU, you would have thought plans for our new regulatory regime would have begun to take shape by now.

Yet whilst there has been much debate and scenario planning for the UK’s exit from the EU, the reality is that firm plans are still proving elusive due to a lack of clarity on the political front. The Government has made clear its intention is to formally commit to Brexit at 23:00 GMT on Friday 29 March 2019, so at least we have relative certainty over the time and date of departure! This means that the majority of the enormous amount of work that needs to be done to ensure that there are no so-called ‘inoperabilities’ on the first day of Brexit, must be completed during 2018. Nowhere will the enormity of the task be felt more than with those civil servants in departments that interact with the food and drink industry, who must be champing at the bit for officials to put pen to paper.

The production, processing, distribution, retail, packaging and labelling of food and drink is governed by a wealth of laws, regulations, codes of practice and guidance; the majority of which is in place at an EU level. All of that needs to ‘lifted and shifted’ into UK law and in some cases new provisions made, if we essentially become a ‘third country’ to the EU. This latter area is incredibly important when it comes to import and export considerations, health certificates etc. and is a major area of concern for many food and drink businesses. The issue of the Irish border with the constant toing and froing of ingredients and products across it, which has been widely debated, brings many of these topics into sharp relief, and will be an essential early indicator of whether provisions have been adequately made.

The safety and authenticity of our products remains paramount for industry and continues to be the top priority for the Food and Drink Federation. Common regulatory and legal requirements informed by sound science and evidence allow companies to do business and trade on a level playing field, whilst also protecting consumers. But EU regulation can also create barriers and burdens that limit the ability of businesses to innovate, so improvements are possible. Despite this, we do not expect much discussion around these potential improvements until we can ensure the continuity of operations that we so need.

Indeed, the issue of whether the UK should continue to follow the regulatory lead of the EU is a hot topic. Regulatory alignment with the EU has the benefit of ensuring fewer non-tariff barriers to trade with our nearest neighbours.

However, many business operators, especially those who have little movement of raw materials or finished goods across national borders, argue that divergence of regulations could be highly beneficial when it comes to encouraging innovation. Somewhere in the mix are considerations, such as regulatory equivalence, mutual recognition and outcome equivalence. It is likely that all those terms will need much clearer definition than is currently the case, and once day one ‘post-Brexit issues’ are settled, it is possible to envisage that discussions on a case by case on different regulatory topics will begin with Government officials. Where previously regulatory convergence between the UK and EU have been of primary consideration, it is possible we’ll see future trade agreements with countries such as the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand drive discussions.

For many stakeholders, the key to progressing negotiations will be to allow regulation to be driven by evidence, something the UK has a proud heritage of upholding (though some might argue that there have been some notable exceptions!). Many have talked about a desire to simplify regulations and Brexit providing an opportunity to deliver this. Government has indicated that there will not be a ‘deregulation’ agenda but one of ‘smarter’ regulation. This is an ambition that is difficult to argue against, but in practice is likely to be tough to achieve without much brain power and energy.

We know that getting this right is key for business continuity and profitability, and more importantly ensuring continued consumer trust in the food chain, and therefore it is something that everyone in the regulatory affairs arena will agree is of the highest priority.


Helen Munday

Chief Scientific Officer

Food and Drink Federation, 10 Bloomsbury Way, London, WC1A 2SL


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