Recruitment and loss of access to data and networks are among 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).
Almost 18 months after the end of the transition period when the UK left the European Union, the analysis assessed how agencies managed and their response to opportunities and challenges.
The NAO reviewed three regulators who took over functions previously carried out by the EU, including the Food Standards Agency (FSA), which now has more responsibilities in assessing risks to human food safety and animal.
The report found that the FSA is building its capacity to take on the increased responsibilities, but faces operational challenges that need to be addressed as it moves away from the interim arrangements.
Out of the EU loop
The researchers revealed that at the end of 2021 the UK was asked to leave the heads of food safety agencies, a group of EU bodies that meet every two years to encourage cooperation and share best practices. The UK left the group in February 2022. The FSA had participated 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 that less information will be shared about food fraud risks, according to the National Food Crime Unit (NFCU).
The loss of access to the EU’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) has had a negative impact on the 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 setting up data-sharing agreements on a case-by-case basis.
Estimates indicate that the FSA needs approximately 65% more full-time equivalent staff to provide the same international exchange of information on food safety incidents today than with RASFF.
Emily Miles, chief executive of the FSA, said the report recognized significant growth in the authority’s remit after Brexit.
“Since leaving the EU, we have taken on several new roles. In particular, we are now responsible for approving new food products coming onto the UK market. We have an increased role in import controls on food entering the country and we have expanded our work to combat food fraud. We no longer have full access to EU data alerts, but we are now in contact with over 180 countries for food safety notifications, while also receiving notifications from non-EU countries,” she said.
Skills gap and new ways of working
The FSA is struggling to recruit the specialist skills needed in key areas such as toxicology. It is exploring new working models to manage challenges in providing official veterinarians and meat hygiene inspectors, but there is a risk that capacity constraints will delay regulatory decisions, the report said.
Nesil Caliskan of the Local Government Association said the report reflected warnings he had made about the lack of professional capacity to draw on in key jobs such as environmental health and trading standards.
“As the necessary capacity of national regulators expands, there is an increased risk that the council’s regulatory services, which are already strained, will be further damaged as local professional labor is recruited into national roles. It is therefore essential that the government ensures that the appropriate resources and support are provided to train the next generation of officers across the regulatory system, in order to safeguard the future of these important roles,” a- she declared.
The FSA is now responsible for the assessment of regulated products such as novel foods, food additives and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for use in food and feed, which was previously carried out by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Commission.
New processes are in place to handle food incidents across the UK, but the report found the FSA is still integrating new sources of information, such as customs data, which it plans to use to improve the risk assessment process.
Food safety is a devolved issue in the four UK countries. Common frameworks for regulatory approaches to food safety and hygiene are working on a provisional basis and are being considered by parliament.
The FSA recently published its long-term strategy, which sets out big ambitions, but NAO said there were no details on how the regulations might change in practice.
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