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UK forced to bridge data gap after losing full access to EU food alerts – report

The UK’s food safety regulator has been forced to bridge gaps in its data after losing full access to EU alerts when the UK left the trade bloc, a watchdog has found (Aaron Chown/PA)
The UK’s food safety regulator has been forced to bridge gaps in its data after losing full access to EU alerts when the UK left the trade bloc, a watchdog has found (Aaron Chown/PA)

The UK’s food safety regulator has been forced to bridge gaps in its data after losing full access to EU alerts when the UK left the trade bloc, a watchdog has found.

A number of information sharing arrangements with EU regulators ceased on Britain’s departure from the union, with UK bodies, including the Food Standards Agency (FSA), moving to put in place alternative systems as a result, according to a new report from the National Audit Office (NAO).

The UK regulators say the loss of data access has negatively impacted their ability to assess risks and carry out their work, the watchdog said, and have turned to international systems, publicly available information and case-by-case arrangements to make up the difference.

The NAO report explored the impact of Brexit on three regulators: the FSA, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

Food shopping
The FSA has taken on an expanded remit for assessing food safety risks (Martin Rickett/PA)

It said all three have been forced to assume “significant new responsibilities” as a result of the country leaving the EU, with HSE now the main regulator for chemicals in the UK, the FSA taking on an expanded remit for assessing food safety risks, and the CMA faced with larger and more complex competition and merger cases.

They are all finding it challenging to recruit the specialist skills they need in some key areas, the watchdog found, with HSE, for example, expecting it will be another four years before it reaches the full capacity it has planned for its post-EU exit regulatory regime.

And, having used EU databases for regulatory activities, the FSA, CMA and HSE all identified loss of data sharing arrangements as having a “negative impact” on their ability to assess risks or carry out their work, the NAO said.

For example, at the end of the Brexit transition period, the FSA lost access to parts of the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF), which it used to exchange information about food safety risks and responses across the EU.

The NAO said access was also lost to the Trade Control and Expert System (TRACES), which provides information on imports, and the Alert and Cooperation Network, which allows for exchanges of intelligence and requests for assistance on food fraud issues between EU member states.

As a result, it said the FSA has put in place alternative mechanisms for identifying and escalating risks, and for exchanging information.

But when it comes to sharing data on food safety incidents across the globe, the FSA estimates it needs 65% more full-time equivalent resources to deliver the same result achieved with the EU’s system, the NAO said.

The regulator confirmed this was the case, but clarified the increase represented only three additional staff.

The FSA expects new data sources to improve its ability to identify food safety risks, but it is “at an early stage in embedding their use”, the watchdog added.

The NAO said the Government has set out a broad ambition for regulatory reform, but until long-term strategies are fully developed, there is a risk that regulators’ current plans to meet operational challenges may be “wasted effort”.

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: “EU exit has had a major impact on many UK regulators.

“They need to overcome many challenges if they are to manage the transition successfully, including recruiting the right specialist skills.

“It is essential that regulators and policy-makers develop their future strategies as soon as possible to avoid wasting effort on short-term work and to ensure the decisions they make now meet their longer-term goals.”

Meg Hillier, Labour MP and chairwoman of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, said: “EU exit has heaped more work onto UK regulators, yet progress is hampered by shortfalls in skills and the door being closed on EU data sharing.

“There is a building tension between the high-minded talk of new Brexit freedoms, and what it means in practice for regulation.

“Clear long-term strategies are needed to avoid short-term wasted effort.

“Government must clearly light the way to prevent regulators fumbling around in the dark.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “The UK will use its regulatory freedoms to become the best regulated advanced economy in the world.

“Free from EU law, our country now has the opportunity to deliver bespoke UK-orientated regulation that is focused on delivering the people’s priorities.

“As part of this, we will ensure our regulators are fit for purpose and working as effectively as possible.”

FSA chief executive Emily Miles said the regulator had ensured at all stages that food remained safe.

“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.

“This ensures we effectively manage food incidents and tackle fraudulent behaviour.

“The report acknowledges that the FSA’s new strategy recommits us to our mission of food you can trust and sets out principles for how we will regulate for the next five years.”