Concerns have been raised about a “lack of import controls” post Brexit on food safety.
Watchdogs at the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and Food Standards Scotland (FSS) raised the issue in a report, which told how the current situation means there is no “official assurance” from the exporting country that items coming into the UK meet its “high standards”.
The UK imports about 40 million tonnes of food from overseas each year – with the EU remaining the biggest supplier, accounting 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 stressed there is no evidence the standards of products coming from the European Union have fallen, but they said: “The current situation does reduce our ability to prevent foods that do not meet the UK’s high standards from being placed on our market.”
The two organisations raised their concerns in their inaugural annual report, which was published after what was described as being a challenging time for the food sector.
The report noted there have been “two years of major upheaval following the UK’s departure from the EU, the significant effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and, more recently, the disruption caused by the war in Ukraine”.
Overall, the two bodies concluded that “food safety standards have largely been maintained during 2021”, adding that “against the background of change and uncertainty, this is a remarkable achievement”.
But with the safety inspections across the UK having fallen during the Covid pandemic, the report stressed that “this is a cautious conclusion”.
Both organisations also noted there were “significant risks ahead”.
In relation to the food that comes to the UK from the EU, they said it is “essential that improved controls are put in place to the timescale that the UK Government has set out” by the end 2023.
This joint report comes at what we believe is a make or break juncture for food quality and safety, as we transition into a post-pandemic landscape and take on new responsibilities following our departure from the EU
Heather Kelman, chair, Food Standards Scotland
The report also highlighted the “fall in the level of local authority inspections of food businesses” during the pandemic.
And while it described this as being “in the process of being repaired”, the report said that progress was “constrained” by resources and the availability of suitably qualified professionals.
Looking at eating habits across the UK, the report said there had been “very little change in the nation’s nutrient intake over the last decade, with many people still falling short of official dietary recommendations”.
But it said there had been a “notable reduction in the average intake of free sugars, particularly in children” – although adding that amounts consumed still exceed recommended intakes.
The report also said that people were now eating less red and processed meat, with one in four people describing themselves as having “flexitarian” eating habits, meaning that they are still eating meat but are cutting down on this along with dairy and other animal products.
The pandemic appears to have had a “mixed” impact on people’s diets, with “evidence that restrictions led some people to prepare and eat healthier meals at home, but also increased the tendency to indulge in unhealthy snacks and takeaways”.
Food prices, meanwhile, rose by 4.5% between December 2020 and December 2021, the report said, adding that this was “the greatest annual increase in the price of food from one December to the next since 2010”.
It added that the annual rise has since increased to 6.7% from April 2021 to April 2022, resulting in UK households spending an average of £72.45 a week on food, with this accounting for for 8.2% of household expenditure.
The report said: “When adjusted for inflation, we were spending 5.8% more on food in real terms in 2021 than we did over the previous five years on average, though this will vary between households.”
FSS chair, Heather Kelman said: “This joint report comes at what we believe is a make or break juncture for food quality and safety, as we transition into a post-pandemic landscape and take on new responsibilities following our departure from the EU.”
She added: “It is really encouraging that this evidence-led report has found that our high food standards we strive for in Scotland and the rest of the UK have been upheld during a particularly challenging period.
“However, the full effects of these momentous events are still being felt, and will continue to have an impact on our food systems for years to come.
“We are under no illusions there are major challenges ahead. As the report points out, there is a significant issue in relation to local authority resourcing, which could have a dramatic effect on the ability to carry out inspections, food law delivery and, at the very core, it could cause a risk to public health.
“Establishing full UK import controls is also an issue which has the potential to not only damage consumer confidence, but ultimately affect the high standards of foods being placed on the market in Scotland and the rest of UK.”
A UK Government spokesperson said: “When the UK left the European Union we regained the right to manage our own borders in a way that works for Britain. This includes how we manage imports into our country from overseas.
“Our new borders strategy will focus on technology to reduce unnecessary costs and delays – which will help businesses and consumers across the UK.
“The controls introduced in January 2021 on the highest risk imports of animals, animal products, plants and plant products will continue to apply in order to safeguard the UK’s biosecurity.”