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Food and Feed Safety (Miscellaneous Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Regulations 2022

Volume 820: debated on Monday 21 March 2022

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Food and Feed Safety (Miscellaneous Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Regulations 2022.

My Lords, the Government’s priority is, as always, to ensure that the high standard of food safety and consumer protection that we enjoy in this country continues to be maintained now that the UK has left the European Union. This instrument follows the 18 EU exit instruments in the field of food and feed safety made during 2019 and 2020. It addresses two deficiencies identified in retained EU law, and provides transitional arrangements for labelling changes introduced as a result of EU exit. Since the instrument is technical in nature, I hope noble Lords will allow me to briefly summarise the changes we are making.

The instrument serves three key functions. First, it will ensure that emergency powers can be applied equally to all food and feed entering Great Britain. Retained EU Regulation 178/2002, on the general principles of food law, provides Ministers with emergency powers to suspend or restrict the placing of food or feed on the market. This can be used where food or feed presents a threat to human health. Legal analysis of Article 53 of that regulation identified that, as worded, it is not possible for a Minister to exercise those emergency powers on third-country food and feed entering Great Britain via Northern Ireland. To correct this operability issue, this proposed regulation includes a technical amendment that will enable all Ministers to apply, equally, the same emergency controls to all food and feed destined for our market. The amendment does not extend the remit or gravity of the controls that may be introduced, but will ensure that emergency controls are exercisable equally across all parts of the UK.

Secondly, the statutory instrument ensures that authorising provisions for feed additives and for GM food and feed authorisations will be made by legislation. Legal analysis of fixed and retained EU law identified that retained law on feed additives and on GM food and feed contained certain omissions. The regulations did not sufficiently make it clear that Ministers’ authorisation decisions will be prescribed in legislation. While this does not prevent Ministers from taking decisions to authorise these products, provision for those decisions to be implemented through legislation makes certain their enforceability in law. It also ensures consistency with other retained EU law in this area.

Thirdly and finally, the amendment provides a period of adjustment for changes to labelling requirements made necessary by EU exit legislation. In preparation for EU exit, changes were made to the legislation on extraction solvents and quick-frozen foods to reflect the fact that the UK would no longer be part of the EU. As a result, relevant food placed on the market is required to be labelled with the name and UK address of the legal person responsible for it, rather than an EU contact and address. This statutory instrument provides a period of adjustment in those sectors, allowing for the continued use of existing labels until 30 September 2022.

I should be clear that this instrument does not introduce any changes that will impact the day-to-day operation of food businesses, nor any new regulatory burden. The essence of the legislation is unchanged. However, it provides benefit for certain businesses by enabling a period of grace in the introduction of labelling changes.

It is also important to note that we have engaged positively with the devolved Administrations throughout the development of the instrument. I take this opportunity to note that their ongoing engagement has been warmly welcomed.

I reassure noble Lords that the overarching aim of this regulation is to provide continuity for businesses and to ensure that high standards of safety and quality for food and feed regulation will continue across the UK. The changes do not affect the essence of existing legislation. Having effective and functional law in this area is key to ensuring the high standards of food safety and consumer protection that we enjoy in this country and to make sure that they are maintained in the immediate and long term. I hope that noble Lords will feel able to support the amendments proposed in this instrument to ensure the continuation of effective food and feed safety and public health controls.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, is taking part remotely. She is speaking as the Liberal Democrat Front-Bencher but, as there are no Back-Benchers to speak, I invite her to speak.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction to the Food and Feed Safety (Miscellaneous Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Regulations 2022, which propose three very differing amendments to existing food safety measures. He was right to start by saying that ensuring the highest levels of food safety is absolutely vital.

The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has pointed out that the second and third regulations come into force on the day after the day on which these amendments are made, so once again they breach the 21-day rule. It is such a shame that SIs and regulations seem always to be dealt with as emergency items, because this reduces the time available for Parliament to effectively scrutinise legislation.

The first amendment is to Article 53 of the retained general food law, to manage a problem that has arisen as a result of the Northern Ireland protocol. I note that the Explanatory Memorandum calls it a “deficiency”. It might perhaps be more honest to call it a problem of the Northern Ireland protocol and the practical effect it has had on border issues for those living in Northern Ireland—how they have to juggle the tensions of a border in the Irish Sea when third-party goods come into Great Britain via Northern Ireland and where a serious risk to human health has been identified with those goods.

It is right that the UK Government must correct regulations that are not fit for purpose, and we note that these amendments to Article 53 do not change the purpose or function of the original provision but there is now full protection for such emergency measures, regardless of where the goods have come from.

The second amendment relates to the authorisation of provisions for feed additives and for GM food and feed, which will now be through legislation, bringing them into line with other retained EU food and feed law. That is particularly welcome. There is a lot of suspicion about GM food and feed, and it is important that there is a vehicle through which it can be scrutinised carefully. Parliament is the right place for that to take place.

The third and final change is a sensible step to ensure that businesses have a slightly longer period to move from EU to UK labelling requirements, until 30 September this year. For some time, food businesses have been asking for a longer period, as well as for labelling requirements to be as close as possible to the EU requirements. The latter is not covered by this SI, but I hope that the Minister will continue to listen to UK food businesses which want to continue to sell into the EU and which must also abide by the EU labelling requirements. I thank the Government for the extension to the period during which the EU ones can be used.

The SI brings us back to the wider issues of the Northern Ireland protocol. That is obviously not on the agenda for today, but I want to say that, from these Benches, we always warned that there would be problems for goods travelling into Great Britain via Northern Ireland and for businesses there, which continue to express real concerns about the UK’s decisions and legislation between 2018 and 2020. Whether one agrees with them or not, it is good that these three corrections and amendments will at least sort out some of those minor problems.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for setting out the rationale behind this eminently sensible statutory instrument, which deals with a number of significant technical issues relating to the Food Standards Agency, some of which have come about because of the Northern Ireland protocol. They need to be resolved, and from these Benches we are of course happy to support this statutory instrument.

I add that the Explanatory Memorandum is very helpful in outlining the approach that the FSA is taking. I will just pick up on a few points. First, paragraph 7.7 refers to

“An analysis of the emergency powers for”

food and feed control, which revealed that these powers could not be deployed as effectively as required. I am interested in exploring the context. It would be helpful if the Minister could advise on whether this analysis was through a hypothetical desk-based exercise, or whether the situations referred to actually occurred. For example, did goods identified as presenting a serious threat to human health enter Great Britain through Northern Ireland or did that not happen in reality?

I welcome the clarification that the GM and feed additive authorisations will be dealt with through an SI. It would be helpful if the Minister could confirm whether this will be through the negative or affirmative approach. Also, are there any implications for the Government’s longer-term strategy for GM products, given the recent statutory instrument that changed some of the rules on research and gene-edited crops?

On the issue of labelling, it would also be helpful if the Minister could comment a bit on whether he feels that the date in place is the right one. I say that because the food production sector finds itself under pressure, of course, and we want to ensure that this is a practical step.

Throughout the consultation, the National Farmers’ Union has sought clarification on the UK’s relationship with the European Food Safety Authority. The NFU has stressed the importance of the UK’s close collaboration with the EFSA on equal terms. Can the Minister comment on the Government’s intentions for their relationship with the EFSA in the context of this statutory instrument, given its importance to our food industry? I would be most grateful.

I have a final point to raise. With regard to the consultations, one observation by the sector was about the expectation that these changes to the regulations could be read through in under an hour, such that businesses, regulatory agencies and councils would be able to work out in that short period how to apply the changes to their organisations. I know that this was regarded as somewhat overoptimistic, but has any further thought been given to an assessment of just how easy it will be to work with these regulations? With those comments, I offer our support for these regulations and thank the Minister in advance for the reply that I know he will give.

My Lords, I thank both noble Baronesses for their contributions and for their general positive response. Once again, I can only apologise for the fact that that some provisions are late. That is an issue that I constantly raise internally and I understand the criticisms.

I will try to address as many of the questions asked by the noble Baronesses as I can before I conclude. On the Northern Ireland protocol, one thing we are looking at is the United Kingdom Internal Market Act and its purpose of promoting the functioning of the internal market, given that we have the Northern Ireland protocol. The Act specifically serves to strengthen and maintain Northern Ireland’s position in the UK internal market. In terms of the bigger picture and how the Northern Ireland protocol works in future, we are hoping that will be done via the UK internal market Act, taking account of that protocol.

The SI makes provision for a specific transitional period to allow the industry to use up existing labelling stocks. A period of 12 to 24 months is indicated as being sufficient time to use up labelling stocks; some quick-frozen produce can also have a shelf life of up to two years. However, if there are still concerns from industry, no doubt we will look at them. We are in constant conversation with industry and a whole range of sectors related to health and other issues.

I hope that covers some of the questions that the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, asked. Once again, if I have not answered all the questions, we will check Hansard and make sure that we sweep up any answers to both noble Baronesses.

The noble Baroness, Lady Merron, asked how the issue was identified. It is hypothetical; nothing has happened, there was no breach of standards. The procedure will be a negative procedure for authorisations. We have had the first group of applications for authorisations, which have progressed through the risk analysis process, and advice has been prepared for Ministers. This amendment is required to empower Ministers to prescribe the authorisation by regulation.

The wider question of the future of GM and gene editing is not considered by this SI, and really it is a matter for the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Of course, if the noble Baronesses want more information, I am very happy to contact that department. For now, the commercial cultivation of gene-edited plants and any food products derived from them will still need to be authorised in accordance with existing GMO rules.

The UK has developed an enhanced risk analysis process, through the FSA, and we will seek close co-ordination with the EFSA. It does not mean we will always align, but it is really important to make sure that we have a strong relationship. Quite often, clearly, the issue of food safety is something that is shared by a number of jurisdictions, not just the UK and the EU, but in fact globally. So we will be looking at that.

In closing, I am grateful for the noble Baronesses’ contributions today. As I have said, if I have not answered questions, I hope, after a quick read of Hansard, I will try to sweep them up. I grateful to the noble Baronesses for their support. We want to make sure that there is a smooth transition for certain businesses in adjusting to the new labelling requirements. I take on board the comments made and I beg to move.

Motion agreed.