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Brexit: Food Labelling and Food Safety

Volume 796: debated on Monday 11 March 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to ensure that food labelling enables traceability and for the United Kingdom to participate in the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed following the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union.

My Lords, food traceability is required by law and enabled by accurate record-keeping at all stages of the food supply chain, supported by mandatory on-label requirements. Existing traceability and supporting labelling requirements will be carried over into UK law through the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, ensuring continued high levels of safety. While comprehensive contingency plans are in place, the Government remain committed to negotiating full access to RASFF, recognising that continued data sharing will be mutually beneficial.

My Lords, I am grateful for that Answer. My noble friend will be aware that every 10 years or so, there is a potential food scare—I am thinking of BSE, foot-and-mouth and the fraud scandal of horse-gate. At the moment, there are 10 food alerts each day and Britain is one of the major beneficiaries from the European rapid alert system. Will my noble friend ensure that our remaining part of that scheme is concluded at the earliest possible time and if we crash out of the EU without a deal, we will take precautions? This is not the time for the UK to go UK-centric. We need to keep our food as safe as possible for both human and animal consumption.

My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend. It is absently paramount that there is confidence in our food and I believe that the FSA is well equipped to provide that. It has been upscaling to increase its capacity and capability. Of course, the optimum is that we should remain part of RASFF and in point of fact it is mutually beneficial because we are one of the most active contributors to it. However, we are also strengthening our links through the WHO’s INFOSAN network, enhancing stakeholder engagement and improving through the FSA’s strategic surveillance programme. I absolutely take the point that it is paramount that our food remains safe, and we are ensuring that.

My Lords, the consumer portal of the rapid alert system is particularly useful for consumers who are concerned about food safety and allergies. For example, in the last few weeks it has contained warnings about E.coli in cheese, norovirus in oysters and chocolate bars with peanuts in them that had no warning about peanuts on the wrapper. All those items came from the EU, so what advice will the Minister give to consumers about where they should go in future for this life-saving information? Are we to have our own portal and how quickly will it be set up?

My Lords, as I have said, the optimum is that we want to remain part of RASFF because we think that it is mutually beneficial. But that is one reason why we are upscaling our interest in INFOSAN, which has 180 countries including Australia, New Zealand and others as part of it. The noble Baroness raised the issue of allergens; we are undertaking a consultation on allergen labelling precisely because we think it really important that there is appropriate labelling for allergies.

Does the Minister accept that of the 32 RASFF members, the United Kingdom is in the top four of countries that issue the notifications that help others? The only countries that can be a member of RASFF, according to the statutory instrument that the Government put through the House last week to take us out of it, are members of the EU and the EEA. At last week’s Select Committee and statutory instrument committee meetings, at no time could anyone tell us who is negotiating on behalf of the UK. They kept saying, “Talk to Defra Ministers”; well, we have a Defra Minister at the Dispatch Box now, so who is actually negotiating our position in RASFF? On the day after we leave, will we stop sending notifications around the rest of the EU to save the lives and futures of people there through food safety? Are we really going to opt out the day after and, if not, who is negotiating?

My Lords, Defra has certain responsibilities and the FSA is responsible to the Department of Health and Social Care. The Secretary of State for Defra will undertake the negotiations through Defra on the point raised by the noble Lord. In point of fact, this has to wait until the next phase of the negotiations—

It will, my Lords, because while we want to remain part of RASFF we cannot negotiate until we get to a certain point. We want to negotiate that continued membership because, as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, says, we are a great contributor to RASFF. He knows that from all his experience. That is why there is a mutual interest in us remaining part of it, and why rapid alerts should of course go round the world whether through RASFF or INFOSAN. It is imperative that rapid alerts continue and that is what we will do.

My Lords, can I press the noble Lord on that issue? My noble friend asked who is negotiating all this. I do not see why we are not having those negotiations now, face to face, and why a new deal with the EU cannot be in place from day one after Brexit. Surely that is within the scope of the negotiations, whether there is a deal or no deal. As my noble friend has said, it is in everyone’s interest that that deal is completed by day one of exit.

My Lords, we are all on the same page. We want to remain part of RASFF, but it is not just for us to decide. That is why there are negotiations between two parties, and it is not always possible for one party to insist. We think there is a mutual benefit to being a member of RASFF. That is our negotiating point, but we are negotiating on the matter, and I hope that we will succeed, as it is in everyone’s interest.

My Lords, should there be a no-deal Brexit, will my noble friend reassure the House that there will be no threat to human health, and possibly life, from being locked out of some of the alerts that come from the EU?

I will be categoric on this because, under EU law, even without full RASFF access, the UK would still receive notification if a food subject to RASFF alert was dispatched to the UK from the EU. This is because the EU Commission is required under EU law to notify third countries where affected foods are dispatched to third countries. That is already in place and will continue. Although the Government and I very much wish there to be a deal, it is why the FSA, under the chair of Heather Hancock, has been working so hard to strengthen capability and capacity, to improve the strategic surveillance programme and to work with the 180-member-strong INFOSAN, so that our food is safe.