Sue Davies, Which?: Food, trade and future UK food policy

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Guest blog: Sue Davies, Head of Consumer Protection and Food Policy, Which? (UK)

As part of our blog series for World Food Safety Day 2020, we asked consumer advocacy leaders to share how they are taking action to protect our right to safe, healthy and sufficient food.

Sue Davies, Head of Consumer Protection and Food Policy at Which? (UK), offers a perspective on UK food policy and trade, highlighting the importance of putting consumers first and building on existing standards to ensure a safer, sustainable and more resilient food system.

The UK is at an important crossroads for food safety and food policy. The direction the government decides to take now, as we develop policy after leaving the EU, will be crucial for consumers’ ability to eat safe, healthy and sustainable food and make the types of food choices that they want.

Which? has been involved in shaping food policy over many decades, but our work on behalf of consumers is more important now than ever.

Learning from food crises

The BSE or ‘mad cow’ crisis in the 1990s was a defining moment. It highlighted how closely linked animal health issues were for food safety and how a more joined up ‘farm to fork’ approach was needed to protect public health.

The crisis also highlighted the need for food policy to be dealt with independently from politics and promotion of producer and trade interests. An initial failure to acknowledge the emergence of a new animal disease for fear of how that might impact on trade and consumer confidence ultimately had a devastating impact for producers, the economy and for health.

Which? successfully campaigned for an independent food agency, with an unambiguous remit to put consumer interests first. The agency came into being in 2000 and made fundamental changes to the way that decisions about food standards were made – with a much more open, transparent and inclusive approach.

A legislative framework was put in place that underpinned this, with a steady increase in consumer protections to clarify responsibilities across the food chain and create systems for independent scientific assessment of safety – whether for food additives, pesticides or genetically modified foods. There has also been a strong emphasis on applying the precautionary principle where there is scientific uncertainty and recognition that food acceptability will be shaped by social and cultural considerations, as well as by science.

Beyond food safety

Food labelling was also improved to help consumers make informed choices. The horsemeat scare, where a wide range of supposed beef products turned out to include illegal horsemeat in 2015, also shone a light on the importance of protecting people against food fraud and reinforced how our attitudes to food are so embedded in our culture.

Focus also shifted to the longer-term safety issues of what we eat. With around two-thirds of the population overweight or obese, Which? campaigned for clearer information about what is in our food. This included the UK’s front of pack traffic light labelling scheme to indicate levels of fat, sugar and salt, as well as wider measures to help make it easier for people to make healthier choices.

Targets have been set to reduce the levels of salt and sugar in food and tighter controls introduced over how food is marketed – including for health claims and the irresponsible way unhealthy foods have been marketed to children.

Prioritising sustainability

In recent years, the focus has shifted to the impact of climate change on the food system, as well as sustainability more generally – but not with enough urgency. The government has set out proposals in a new Agriculture Bill that gives much greater emphasis to incentivising ‘public goods’ through farm payments, including environmental improvements and a focus on animal health and welfare. Which?’s research has shown increasing consumer interest in making more sustainable and lower impact choices, although many struggle to do this. A new national food strategy is now planned – and has the potential to ensure a more joined up approach if the government is prepared to be ambitious.

Covid-19 and food security

In the immediate term, the UK is in the midst of tackling the Covid-19 pandemic. Initial food shortages as the country went into lockdown highlighted just how fragile the UK’s ‘just in time’ food supply chains can be. For most people, food is once again available, but it is a different story for vulnerable people struggling to physically get out and buy food or who are facing financial difficulty. Which?’s immediate priority has been trying to ensure more effective coordination across government and the different parts of the food sector so that those people struggling to access food can get what they need.

Crucial trade talks

All of these issues – from the pandemic to the wider food system challenges of tackling climate change, obesity, food fraud, safety or food security – also highlight just how interconnected the global food system is and how shocks or disruption in one part of the world can easily impact on the choice and affordability of food that consumers have in the UK.

The UK is in negotiations with the EU about a future trade deal. The first round of trade talks with the US are underway and moving at pace. Australia, New Zealand and Japan are next on the government’s list of priority trade deals. Agri-food issues will be central to all of these negotiations.

These talks will be crucial for ensuring food availability and affordability. At the moment, 28% of food in the UK comes from the EU, 4% from Africa, North America, South America and Asia – and 1% in the case of Australasia.

The UK’s approach to trade deals is also important because of the different approaches to food standards within these countries. The UK could be under pressure to allow lower quality imports  – whether that is for hormone-treated beef, chlorine treated chicken or use of antibiotics growth promoters, for example, all currently banned in the UK, as they are in the EU.

Putting consumers first

More than two decades on since BSE, issues around the extent to which consumer interests are given prominence relative to wider trade interests – and what type of food standards consumers should be able to rely on - are therefore still crucial.

It is important that we do not ignore the lessons of the past. Which? research shows that UK consumers expect food standards to be maintained and ideally enhanced. The UK needs to make sure that rather than trading away food standards, we build on the standards that are already in place to ensure a safer, sustainable and more resilient food system.