Brexit has increased the risk of dangerous foods reaching the UK because inspectors are shut out of the EU’s “rapid alert system”, ministers are warned today.
The Food Standards Agency is still scrambling to build defences to compensate for the loss of data, the National Audit Office has found – a task made more difficult by the UK scrapping planned import checks.
The regulator has admitted it needs a 65 per cent boost to its resources to “deliver the same result achieved with the EU’s system”, the report warns.
In common with other regulators, Brexit has had a “negative impact on their ability to assess risks or carry out their work”, the NAO concludes.
“Failures in food safety can have catastrophic consequences for human life, public confidence, the wider economy and international trade,” the watchdog points out.
The chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee highlighted the big gap between “high-minded talk of new Brexit freedoms and what it means in practice for regulation”.
“Government must clearly light the way to prevent regulators fumbling around in the dark,” Meg Hillier said.
Until the UK left the EU, it was part of the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF), allowing it to exchange information about food safety incidents and responses across the bloc.
The FSA is forced to mitigate for the information loss “using other international systems, publicly available data, or by setting up data sharing arrangements on a case-by-case basis”.
However, these are at “an early stage” and “there is a risk that it may have less information about food fraud risks”, the body told the inquiry.
The problem mirrors the loss of instant alerts about suspected terrorists and organised criminals.
Full controls on imports from the EU were seen as part of the post-Brexit defences, but the government has abandoned them over fears of adding to the cost of living crisis.
Vets have warned the move is opening the door to diseases such as African Swine Fever and “wreak havoc” on disease prevention.
The UK and EU intended to begin talks on “voluntary regulatory cooperation, such as exchange of information on good regulatory practices”.
However, little progress has been made, due in part to the battle between the two sides over the Northern Ireland Protocol. A “regulatory cooperation committee” has met only once and will meet only once a year in future.
But the FSA said the need for a 65 per cent boost in its resources meant, in reality, recruiting only three extra staff.
Emily Miles, its chief executive, said: “We no longer have full access to EU data alerts, but we now link with more than 180 countries for food safety notifications, while also receiving third-country notifications from the EU.
“This ensures we effectively manage food incidents and tackle fraudulent behaviour.”
The NAO’s warning comes following a salmonella scare which has seen more than 100 products containing cooked chicken removed from sale by a major supplier.
Cranswick Country Foods said they included sandwiches and wraps sold at Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Aldi, the Co-op, Pret a Manger and Marks & Spencer.
In its evidence, the FSA said it had struck a data-sharing deal, in December 2021, with HMRC to “increase its intelligence on imports from the EU of high-risk food and feed”.
“In time, it expects these new data sources to enhance its ability to identify food safety risks, but it is at an early stage in embedding their use,” the NAO stated.
Gareth Davies, the head of the watchdog, said: “EU exit has had a major impact on many UK regulators.
“They need to overcome many challenges if they are to manage the transition successfully, including recruiting the right specialist skills.”