Food safety controls under threat from no-deal Brexit

The UK government could be forced temporarily to abandon food safety controls in the event of a no-deal Brexit to prevent huge delays at UK borders, one of its advisers has told academics.

Safety fears include livestock being treated with antibiotics. Picture: Getty

The authors of a new report say they have been informed by a government adviser of the plans being developed should delays emerge. EU countries might respond by blocking exports from the UK due to it adopting a “cavalier” approach to safety standards, the report adds.

The warnings come after the new Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab refused to deny claims that the UK government is planning to stockpile food in case the UK is forced to leave the EU without securing a deal with Brussels. He also failed to rule out the possibility that a no-deal Brexit could result in the M26 in Kent becoming a “lorry park”, with stringent checks on vehicles leaving the country.

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Mr Raab added that while he was confident the UK and EU would strike a compromise deal, “I think it’s only the responsible thing to do to be prepared if those negotiations, and the energy and ambition and pragmatism we’re showing, are not reciprocated,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.

Asked if the government was planning to stockpile food in case no deal was done, Mr Raab initially said “No”, but then added: “That kind of selective snippet that makes it into the media I think is unhelpful. We are making sure both in the allocation of money – £3bn extra allocated last Budget – and through operational things like hiring extra border staff that we are ready for any and every eventuality. We will gradually set out more of the detail through technical notices.”

Asked whether the M26 in Kent could become “a lorry park” in a similar scenario, he replied: “Of course if we have no deal we will want to make sure we are prepared at the border, with the knock-on effects that would have, if on the EU side they take the worst-case scenario approach. I’m confident we won’t get there, but even if we did we will have the planning in place, the operational matters in place, from the infrastructure to the planning laws to deal with that.”

The warnings on food safety are contained in the Food Research Collaboration briefing, Feeding Britain: Food Security After Brexit, compiled by academics at City University in London. In the section entitled “Preparing for a no-deal food Brexit”, the report says it believes the UK will need to maintain “open and unhindered borders” with the EU for food.

“We have learnt from a senior government adviser that plans are being prepared to ‘suspend food controls’ if there are any delays to imports of perishable foods at our borders,” the authors write, claiming a government adviser even informed them that the plans were being devised “to avoid parliamentary scrutiny”.

Senior figures in the food industry told the authors that the suspension of controls would be “folly”, primarily because it would threaten exports from the UK to the EU.

The report says: “If the UK were to suspend food safety controls, others might block exports from a country taking such a cavalier approach to public health.

“It would go completely against all the protestations of commitment to high consumer and health standards.Yet this appears to be what Defra envisages.”

The report adds: “If border checks rose to four minutes, there would be 20-mile or so (possibly 29-mile) lorry tailbacks within a day, hence the fall-back of suspending food controls to allow all traffic to be waved through.”

The City University professor Tim Lang, a co-author of the report, said: “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. Criminals would be alerted to opportunities for food fraud.

“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.”

The main concerns over food safety standards include hormonally treated pork or beef, genetically modified cereals, pulses, fruit and vegetables, “chlorine-washed” chicken (and turkeys, as well as other meats and fish, fruits and vegetables) and a surge in livestock treated with antibiotics.

According to the report, the UK food system is closely entwined with those of its EU neighbours. The UK does not feed itself, it points out, rather its food security is heavily dependent on imports from other EU member states. To alter this could take years, possibly decades.

A new post-Brexit trade deal with the US has led many to worry that food such as “chlorine-washed” chicken and milk from cows injected with beef hormones will flood the UK market.