The UK is facing “significant risks” to the quality of food being imported and consumed as Brexit, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Ukraine war put pressure on standards, British watchdogs have warned.
Better controls are needed to ensure the quality of “higher-risk” food coming from the EU post-Brexit – such as meat, dairy, eggs and feed – and to avoid “potential safety incidents”, a report by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and Food Standards Scotland (FSS) said.
They added that the cost of living crisis would also put pressure on the types of food people could afford to buy.
“Our research shows that concerns about price, health and the environment are high among the public’s priorities,” they said. “In the face of the steep rises in food prices, and wider pressures on household incomes … we recognise that it is almost certain to become more challenging for consumers to access affordable healthy and sustainable food this year.”
The inaugural report, published on Monday, concluded that food standards had been maintained in 2021 despite pandemic upheaval, but said this was a “cautious conclusion” and warned of challenges ahead.
“Establishing full UK import controls on food by the end of next year from the EU is a priority,” said Prof Susan Jebb, the chair of the FSA. “The longer the UK operates without assurance that products from the EU meet our high food and feed safety standards, the less confident we can be that we can effectively identify potential safety incidents.”
The report said it was vital for the UK to be able halt the import of unsafe foods but that the FSA and FSS were unable to put sufficient controls in place without government support.
“Although we have considered these challenges carefully and put other arrangements within our control in place, they are not, in our view, sufficient,” the report said. “We are therefore committed to working with government departments to ensure that the introduction of these improved import controls provides high levels of protection for UK consumers.”
The UK did not have new border checks in place when post-Brexit rules came into force in January last year, and implementing them was put off to July this year.
However, in April the Cabinet Office minister Jacob Rees-Mogg said he was delaying the move again, saying tit would be costly for businesses already facing a tough trading environment and soaring supply chain expenses.
The imposition of controls resulting from the Brexit deal would have been “an act of self-harm” costing UK businesses £1bn annually, he said.
The second main concern has been a fall in the number of inspections of food businesses because of resourcing pressures faced by local authorities exacerbated by the pandemic.
“The situation is in the process of being repaired – in particular in food hygiene inspections of cafes and restaurants – but progress is constrained by resource and the availability of qualified professionals,” the report said. “Local authorities need sufficient resources to carry out their part in assuring that food is what it says it is.”
Sue Davies, the head of consumer rights and food policy at consumer group Which?, said: “It is essential that the government heeds these warnings and ensures that consumers can have confidence that there are effective safeguards in place to maintain safety and broader food standards for both UK-produced and imported products.”
Nearly half of the UK’s food – 40m tonnes annually – comes from abroad, and two-thirds of that has in recent years come from the European Union. The EU accounts for more than 90% of all beef, dairy, eggs and pork products imported into the UK and nearly two-thirds (65%) of all food and feed not of animal origin.
The FSA and FSS will look at wider issues beyond food safety in future reports. These include growing consumer concerns into broader standards linked to production such as animal welfare, sustainability and national food security.