Recruitment and a loss of access to data and networks are some of the challenges facing the Food Standards Agency now that the UK has left the EU, according to a report by the National Audit Office (NAO).
Nearly 18 months after the end of the transition period when the United Kingdom left the European Union, the analysis assessed how agencies have managed and their response to the opportunities and challenges.
The NAO looked at three regulators that have taken on functions previously carried out by the EU, including the Food Standards Agency (FSA), which now has more responsibility for assessing human food and animal feed safety risks.
The report found the FSA is building capability to meet the increased responsibilities but is facing operational challenges that need to be addressed as it moves away from interim arrangements.
Out of the EU loop
Researchers revealed that at the end of 2021, the UK was told to leave the Heads of Food Safety Agencies, a group of EU bodies that meet biannually to encourage cooperation and share good practices. The UK left the group in February 2022. The FSA had been involved in several working groups and co-chaired one on food fraud.
As the EU is no longer required to share intelligence with the UK, there is a risk of less information being shared about food fraud risks, according to the National Food Crime Unit (NFCU).
Lost access to the EU’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) negatively impacted FSA’s ability to assess risks and carry out its work. The agency is trying to mitigate this impact by using other international systems, publicly available data, or by setting up data sharing arrangements on a case-by-case basis.
Estimates indicate the FSA requires about 65 percent more full time equivalent staff to deliver the same international information exchange on food safety incidents now than it did using RASFF.
Emily Miles, FSA chief executive, said the report recognized significant growth in the authority’s remit after Brexit.
“Since leaving the EU, we have taken on several new functions. In particular, we are now responsible for the approval of new food products that come on to the UK market. We have an enhanced role in import controls for food entering the country and we have expanded our work to tackle food fraud. 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,” she said.
Skills gap and new ways of working
The FSA is finding it challenging to recruit the specialist skills needed in key areas such as toxicology. It is looking at new working models to manage challenges in the supply of official veterinarians and meat hygiene inspectors, but there is a risk that capacity constraints may delay regulatory decisions, according to the report.
Nesil Caliskan, at the Local Government Association, said the report mirrors warnings it made about the lack of professional capacity to draw on in key jobs such as environmental health and trading standards.
“With the expansion of capacity needed in national regulators, there is an increased risk that council’s regulatory services, which are already stretched, will be damaged further as the local professional workforce is recruited into national roles. It is therefore essential that the government ensures the right resources and support is supplied to train up next generation of officers across the full regulatory system, to protect the future of these important roles,” she said.
FSA is now responsible for assessing regulated products such as novel foods, feed additives and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for food and feed uses, which was previously done by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and EU Commission.
New processes are in place to handle food-related incidents across the UK but the report found the FSA is still incorporating new information sources, such as customs data, which it plans to use to enhance the risk assessment process.
Food safety is a devolved matter in the four UK nations. Common frameworks to regulatory approaches on food safety and hygiene are operating provisionally and being looked at by parliament.
The FSA recently published its long-term strategy, which sets out broad ambitions but NAO said there is no detail on how regulation may change in practice.
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