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 puts pressure on standards, according to a new report.
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” the report by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and Food Standards Scotland (FSS) said.
They warned 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,” the report concludes. “In the face of the steep rises in food prices, and widener 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 were maintained in 2021 despite the 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 says that it is vital for the UK to be able halt the import of unsafe foods but that the FSA and FSS are 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 says. “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 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 says. “Local authorities need sufficient resources to carry out their part in assuring that food is what it says it is.”
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.