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This is a transcript of episode nine of the Down to Agribusiness podcast. Visit the show page here.

Food law: What does Brexit mean for food labelling?

Adam Sharpe

Hello and welcome to the latest edition of the Down to Agribusiness podcast. I’m Adam Sharp. Since last year’s referendum, the issue of Brexit and how it is likely to impact the food and agriculture industry in the UK, EU, and around the world has been a frequent topic of discussion in IEG policy and other services under the informal agribusiness umbrella.

Earlier in this podcast series, we covered the possible implications on trade and animal health, and now our attention turns to the topic of food labelling. The UK’s food labelling has been seen to be out of step with the rest of Europe anyway, so can we expect even more divergence post-Brexit, as British exporters seek out new global markets? I’m joined by Peter Rixon, IEG Policy’s Senior Analyst for European Food Law, to discuss these topics and more. Hello, Peter.

Peter Rixon
Hello, Adam.

So, are we expecting to see any radical changes to food labelling laws when the UK exits the European Union?

Well, I think, Adam, there’s a short answer to that, and that is in the short term, no, we’re not expecting any radical changes. I would add to that, to the general point, that EU food legislation will continue to apply up until we leave the bloc and afterwards, including the latest changes to the Food Information for Consumers regulation which came in last year. That was about mandatory labelling on pre-packaged foods. In addition to that, I would say that the UK has actually helped to steer the changes to European food law in the last few years, so it’s fairly happy with it anyway, with what we’ve got under the Food Information for Consumers regulation.

On the consumer side, the consumers seem very happy with it as well. I say that because the Scottish Food Standards Agency carried out a survey earlier this year and found that there was a high level of satisfaction with food safety and standards, which gives us an idea about what people are feeling towards food law generally in the UK. I think it’s clear that a lot of what’s in place is welcome, for example, the allergy advice, and people would want that to remain.

So, I don’t think there’s much change that can be expected with the transposition of EU legislation into the statutory instruments. Going forward, I think a lot of people, particularly industries, are hoping for minimal regulatory divergence to ensure that there are smooth trade regulations with the EU 27, which is an incredibly valuable market.

I also feel that negotiating trade agreements will be the priority for the UK in the short term, post-Brexit, rather than tinkering with food laws.

What about the sometimes controversial issue of traffic light labelling? The European Commission was considering legal action against the UK over that scheme. How are things looking now?

Yes, this is a good point. Traffic light labelling was introduced as a voluntary scheme in the UK in 2013 by the government, and it has proved to be very successful. However, it wasn’t popular with, in particular, Italy, because Italy felt it discriminated against some of its products. As a consequence, Italy put the European Commission under pressure to consider legal action, and that was backed by quite a few MEPs.

However, things have changed since then, and not only has the UK scheme become popular in the private sector as well but it’s also being considered as something that France might introduce. When I say ‘traffic light labelling’, I’m talking about colour coding generally. France’s scheme is different, and it’s started a trial scheme of colour coding, but it shows that perhaps the way things are going is that traffic light labelling is going to become more popular rather than less, and Brexit is not going to put a break on it.

The only other thing on traffic light labelling is that there have been calls in the UK to make it mandatory. It’s voluntary at the moment. However, it’s probably more important for companies to stop fudging the scheme, to do the scheme properly. It has been a source of criticism that some companies are changing the colours on the labelling, perhaps to disguise the sugar content of products to make them look more healthy, and that would be a necessary change to encourage companies to comply with it correctly.

What about products that have protected status under EU law, such as west country beef, Cornish pasties, Kentish ale? The European Commission recently issued a paper on this, I believe, so what did that say?

Yes, indeed. This was a surprise, that the European Commission last Thursday came up with a position paper, and it revealed that the Commission wants very much to ensure that these protected status products continue to have their names respected, both in the UK and across Europe. We know the European Commission is also, through trade deals with Canada, Japan I believe-, ensure to secure these protected names. They want to make sure that the UK does continue this scheme as well. In the UK itself, there were worries that Cornish pasty and the like would lose their protected status, but it’s turning out that both sides, both the EU 27 and the UK, are keen to continue the scheme.

The position paper last week was pointing out that the UK doesn’t actually have its own legislation that ensures this scheme continues, and the Commission is asking the UK to introduce legislation. So, that’s a bit of good news in the Brexit negotiations so far.

And mandatory country-of-origin labelling. How will that shape up in the UK once it leaves the EU?

Yes. Well, Brexit is not going to be a barrier to country-of-origin labelling, simply because the UK’s a little bit behind here. There is already mandatory country-of-origin labelling on certain products, like poultry, lamb, and beef, and additional labelling is allowed. France has taken the lead here and introduced a pilot scheme this year which requires mandatory labelling of meat and dairy products’ ingredients, and there are demands in the UK for the government to follow France on country-of-origin labelling.

There’s nothing to stop the UK from doing this, because as I say, it is somewhat behind other countries in that respect.

Health claims feature significantly on food labels, and as I understand it, these are governed by the EU Nutrition and Health Claims regulation. The European Food Safety Authority is responsible for verifying the science behind these claims. So, how is the UK going to cope on its own?

Yes, well, you’re right, Adam. It’s the EU Health and Nutrition Claims regulation that governs health claims that we find on the labels, telling us whether products are good for us, and I imagine the UK will continue to apply the rules of this regulation as we leave the EU. There could be an opportunity at a later date, perhaps, to review its legal basis. There is an argument that the regulation puts a huge break on innovation, and any deregulation, it’s been argued, could see advances in the functional food market, but products sold into the EU will still have to comply with this regulation, of course.

A general point about the European Food Safety Authority, this is an organisation that the UK will undoubtedly remain close to. It’s a valuable scientific network. Norway and Switzerland remain close to it and its work, and although the UK could build up new advisory and regulatory capacity over time, I don’t see the UK departing from EFSA’s sphere of influence at all.

What about claims made in advertising about food products?

Well, the Advertising Standards Authority, the ASA, will continue with its code of practice. It’s a voluntary code of practice that companies are regularly brought up on. Yes, I believe that will continue as it currently is today.

Now, we keep hearing about the UK, and how it wants to go global after Brexit and strike new trade agreements around the world. How could that apply to food labelling?

Well, I suppose there’s one particular area that the UK could take the lead on, and that’s addressing the environmental impact of food. Our awareness has been growing about how Europe and America have these huge food footprints, as they’re called. There’s a disparate collection of labelling schemes across Europe that attempt to raise awareness of the food’s environmental impact. I think what would be needed is a single, simple, positive, and voluntary scheme to address this, ideally that would copy the success of traffic light labelling, which was also very simple and voluntary and successful. That would look at three main areas. One of them is the CO2 output of food. The other one is the biodiversity impact of food and the packaging on the food.

CO2 relates to the industrial input into the food processing. The biodiversity aspect relates to its contribution to habitat restoration and reforestation. I think we used to talk about preventing deforestation, but now these days we need to be talking about reforestation. The packaging relates to whether it can be recycled or composted, i.e. whether it’s biodegradable or not, and I think certainly there’s an opportunity there to attempt to create a very simple scheme that could also be copied elsewhere.

Thank you, Peter.

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