March Update - Food & Agri News

1. Brexit - Supply Chains & Standards

The main news that has dominated March has been the drastic reduction in trade between the EU and UK as systematic changes to the trading relationship bit and overall higher costs for customs declarations, customs agents, freight forwarders and additional veterinary inspections, that are rendering certain exports un-viable, including the de-facto ban on UK shellfish due to the requirement for purification before export. This will be pushed yet further next month with the narrowing of exemptions from official controls at border posts for composite food products that contain products of animal origin (POAO), such as milk or egg of less than 50%, but no processed meat by a new draft regulation. The restriction will come into place on 21st April 2021.  This will delete Article 6 and Annex II from Decision 2007/275.  The exemptions will no longer be based on the quantities of processed POAOs expressed in percentage of ingredients of the composite product.

A Brexit impact report for the UK meat industry has been prepared by The British Meat Processors Association; the point is made that at some point the UK must start imposing the same sanitary and phytosanitary checks on food being imported as are being done on the food that is exported to the EU.  Three key recommendations are highlighted by the report that should be worked upon;

  • Ensuring flexibility, adaptability and cost effectiveness of veterinary checks;
  • Providing for an integrated, end-to-end electronic tracing and certification system that is integrated across different systems with consistent guidance.
  • Closer veterinary equivalency agreements with the EU.

The Trade and Agriculture Commission (TAC) has published it recommendations for the UK government’s post-Brexit trade policy in March also. 

The TAC hopes their report will provide a framework to fashion future policy.  The role of the TAC, made up of independent food, farming and environmental experts from across the UK, will be next to advise the government on the impact of any future trade deals before they can be ratified by way of reports that will be laid before parliament.  Politicians will then have 21 days to scrutinise, debate and vote on the findings before any deals are approved by parliament..   

The main thrust of the report is towards a liberal tariff free approach to international trade where standards are of an equivalent level. 

The main areas of recommendations are of interest due to the priorities they outline, a liberalisation of trade dependent upon equivalent standards alongside a promotion of UK’s own values, standards and products worldwide.

It was of particular interest to see the promotion of country of origin labelling and for this to be used to support domestic supply chains.

2. Gene editing in farming likely to be given green light

A ten-week consultation by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) on the question of relaxing restrictions on gene editing in farming closed on 17 March.

EU legislation controlling the use of GMOs was retained in the UK at the end of the transition period required that all Gene Edited (GE) organisms are classified as GMOs irrespective of whether they could be produced by traditional breeding methods.

Defra’s own view is that organisms produced by GE or by other genetic technologies should not be regulated as GMOs if they could have been produced by traditional breeding methods.  Responses have been broadly supportive of gene editing, with its’ potential to address pest and disease pressures on crops and livestock, increasing resilience in the event of extreme weather events and help provide for a more efficient use of resources, resulting in lower emissions and less waste.  Additional benefits of gene editing for UK agriculture could include gluten-free wheat, oilseeds with heart-healthy fats, disease-resistant sugar beet and potatoes.

It looks likely that in response to this consultation Defra may change the legislation to amend the definition of a GMO as it applies in England. Currently GMOs are defined in section 106 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990.  This would mean that this legislation does not apply to organisms produced by gene editing (GE) and other genetic technologies if they could have been developed using traditional breeding methods.

This, if passed, will be the first significant move away from EU hegemony in such a key area. 

It will provide opportunity for further research and development for the UK and may fit with the recent Agriculture Act with it's emphasis on promotion of public goods; in the main, environmental actions on soil, pollution, biodiversity, climate and more.

Further responses on GMO in general will be used to inform policy development and stakeholder engagement plans on any potential wider GMO reform.

3. Finally, action for further scrutiny on voluntary claims on food labels?

The use of terms like 'responsibly sourced' or 'sustainably sourced' 'traditional farm' and 'farm fresh' were criticised by celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in the Sunday Telegraph this month. Voluntary claims such as 'traditional' 'fresh' and 'pure' are already covered by guidance produced by the Food Standards Agency that states all claims should have some meaning to the consumer, not be misleading and be able to be substantiated.  

In addition to this, more and more environmentally friendly and 'green' claims are being made and an update on the requirements for making these may be accessed here. Additional suggestions recently made by Fearnley-Whittingstall would be for a traffic light system on food packaging to show how environmentally friendly it is. 

An additional option to support animal welfare measures was also suggested by Fearnley-Whittingstall and this was that supermarkets display the age an animal was killed on their meat packaging so shoppers are confident about farming practices. 

Whilst not all these ideas are likely to gain traction it is certainly something the food industry should keep abreast of as recent history shows the influence of celebrity chefs on consumer confidence and food policy.

For advice on food labels and any voluntary claims that may be made please contact Jessica Burt on email jessica.burt@mills-reeve.com 

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