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House of Lords Hansard
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Brexit: Food Standards Regulations
04 September 2018
Volume 792

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will commit to putting before both Houses any proposals to amend the United Kingdom’s food standards regulations in the event of a “no deal” scenario when the United Kingdom leaves the European Union.

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My Lords, before leaving the European Union the Government will, under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, bring before Parliament regulations that will make technical amendments to EU-derived and retained food safety and standards law to ensure that the regime operates effectively after Brexit. In making any such amendments, the Government will ensure that the UK’s food standards and safety regime maintains the same high standards of protection.

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My Lords, I ought to be reassured by the Minister’s reply but I am not. In light of his refusal to rule out suspending the UK’s food standards regulations if there is no deal, is this measure being considered seriously? Will the Government publish an impact analysis of such a measure and further commit to working with organisations such as the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health to ensure that all necessary food safety steps are taken before proceeding? Finally, do the Government plan to issue a ministerial direction to the Food Standards Agency regarding its statutory duty to put consumers first in relation to safe food?

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I can tell the noble Lord that we will be maintaining the same standards of safety and protection. We will be seeking not just continuity but equivalence. We may want to go further in other areas. Of course, this will be for discussion with the House. The ongoing role of the Food Standards Agency will be as it is now, to make sure that public health and consumers’ interests continue in relation to food. There is no need to issue a ministerial direction or anything else to ensure this because it is its legally given role and one it will continue to fulfil.

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Is the Department for International Trade aware of these facts? It appears to be thinking of agreements—were we to leave the European Community—in which we would have to accept the much lower food standards of countries like the United States.

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There are no suggestions that there should be lower food standards. Obviously, after we leave the European Union, the Food Standards Agency will carry out any risk assessments. There are no proposals to change these rules; we will continue with them. Of course, there would be a proper scientific and evidence-based assessment if there were such suggestions.

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Will the Minister give an assurance that, after we leave, Ministers will play no role in food safety risk assessment? Will a mechanism be found to transfer what takes place in the European field to some independent body, maybe with the Chinese walls of the existing Food Standards Agency? It should not go back to Ministers because they are there to promote the food industry—a role that is in conflict with securing safety for consumers.

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The noble Lord raises an important point. This is a good opportunity to clarify what we are proposing. At the moment risk assessment takes place through the European Food Standards Agency. Risk management decisions are made by the Commission and the Council. Following Brexit, we would look to replicate that split with risk assessment taking place in the independent agency and risk management decisions being made by Ministers.

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I am grateful for the Minister’s response. Given that food related ill health is a major source of premature death in the UK and that the FSA was set up specifically to prevent harm occurring from safety weaknesses in food preparation, what specific measures have the Government put in place to ensure that the FSA can cope in keeping the population safe if no deal is the only deal?

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I should like to clarify that, in the case of food safety, Ministers in the Department of Health would make risk management decisions on the basis of a risk assessment. This is one way in which any concerns about conflict of interest would be overcome. Clearly, we will be making technical changes to the role of the FSA to make sure that the regime is operable following our exit from the European Union. These will reaffirm the FSA’s independence and its role in providing that consumer protection.

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Will the noble Lord assure the House that there will be sufficient funding for the Food Standards Agency and for local authority environmental health officers—who act as its agents—to check that the law is being observed and, where it is not, to enforce it?

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I can tell the noble Baroness that we will do everything necessary to make sure we maintain the same high standards of protection that we have now.

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My Lords, if there is a no deal outcome, the UK will no longer have access to the EU safety assessment data for food products on which we currently rely. Given that 10,000 containers of food come from the EU daily, are the Government intending to inspect each of them at the ports or are they going to let them through with minimal checks, in which case, surely we are risking a public health scandal as a result?

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We hope for and expect to have arrangements meaning that we can continue to access systems such as the Rapid Alert System for food and feed. This is one of the ways we gain such information. Sharing such information in the trade of food is obviously mutually beneficial. We are, of course, planning for non-participation. This means looking for other kinds of agreements with both EU and international bodies to make sure that food alerts can be shared and that we can provide that level of safety.

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My Lords, the noble Lord said that regulations will be required. It will be of interest to the House to know what the timetable for those regulations will be.

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My understanding is that they will be laid, subject to clearance, before the end of the year.

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My Lords, the Government are refusing to agree with Brussels on maintenance of the system of geographical indications which protects the name and quality of local and regional products. Are the Government throwing Cornish pasties and West Country cheddar to the wolves in proposing to accept fake American versions of these products?

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I do not know whether wolves like cheddar, but that is more a question for my colleagues in Defra which I would not seek to answer. What I can say is that we want to provide protection for everything that the UK produces that is internationally recognised and special.