A so-called “no-deal” Brexit would put UK food security and quality at risk, while the UK government is paying too little attention to the needs of the retail and foodservice sectors, according to a new report compiled by industry specialists.

The paper – Feeding Britain: Food security after Brexit – questions the contingency plans being put in place by the UK government to suspend food regulations should UK politicians fail to get a deal on Brexit with the European Union.

There is more than one instance when the UK could leave without a deal. By 29 March 2019, the UK and the EU need to find a deal on issues included in their “withdrawal agreement”, announced in March this year, and which focused on issues such as the Irish border and citizens’ rights.

If that goes smoothly, a transition period kicks in that lasts until December 2020 when the UK is looking to have struck a trade deal with the EU. The first case is seen as the worst kind of no deal, although either way there would be no trade deal.

However, Feeding Britain warns food flows in and out of the country would be put at “significant risk” from what the report terms a “careless” Brexit, which could also foster cases of fraud and criminal activity. At the same time, a “fault line” could emerge if the government does not pay more attention to retail and foodservice players as it proposes close alignment with the EU for the farming and manufacturing community. 

One of the authors, Professor Tim Lang, says with respect to the contingency planning: “One could argue that this is sensible emergency planning but it is also risky. Consumers would rightly wonder who was guaranteeing the safety and quality of the imported food they were buying. And the move would send negative signals to the EU, at a delicate time in Brexit negotiations. It could make the UK’s third-country status more problematic for exports.’

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The report points out that the foodservice sector creates more gross value added of 29% than the 26% for manufacturing, 27% for retailers, 11% for wholesalers and 7% for agriculture. And, it is the largest employer in the UK food chain.

“The Government makes a fundamental mistake in proposing close alignment with the EU only for farming and manufacturing, but not for retail or food service,” the paper notes with respect to the potential fault line that could ensue. 

More clarity is also required on migrant workers and the contribution they make to the UK food system, along with greater attention to the “special” needs of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland that are “highly” food-dependent.

Contributing author Professor Terry Marsden adds: “There is a strong need for the joint production of a sustainable food framework which involves the devolved regions of the UK and the regions of England, such that it enhances food security and creates the basis for more healthy food consumption in the UK as a whole.” 

And the report also contends that the UK’s Food Standards Agency is creating unnecessary risks by pushing ahead with its reforms to food safety regulations – entitled Regulating Our Future (ROF) – “at a time when a stable regulatory regime should be in place as the basis of trade and Brexit negotiations”. 

That said, the standards body has pledged to consult with consumer groups, local authorities, food businesses and UK and international regulators in its proposals.

Another contributing author, Professor Erik Millstone, said: “It is vital, in the context of negotiating and enacting Brexit, that the Food Standards Agency, and the UK government more generally, avoid any decisions, proposals or actions, that could adversely affect food safety standards in the UK or the reputation of the UK’s food supply.

“The public needs to know that ROF heralds fundamental changes to the way in which food safety, standards and animal feed are to be regulated.”