Brexit has changed many things for UK food and farming. One of the biggest changes is the ambiguous, shifting regulatory landscape we now find ourselves in. Whilst ‘regulation’ may not sound like the most exhilarating topic, it is deeply embedded in everything we do about food. From fisheries and agriculture, to retail, advertising, trade, innovation and technology – regulation plays a vitally important role, often behind the scenes. Some 4,000 pieces of EU regulation are currently at stake in what has been evocatively coined the “bonfire of regulation”. What could this mean? Over the next six months, the Food Ethics Council will be exploring regulation and deregulation – both heavily loaded terms that fire up all sorts of preconceptions. We’ll be asking some key questions such as, what types of regulation are essential for fair food systems? When are regulations ‘common sense protections’ and when are they unnecessary? Who does regulation benefit, and who does it harm?
In this thought-provoking long-read, our Council member Ralph Early sets the scene for our work on regulation, taking readers on a journey from toxic red Leicester and horsemeat, to the UK’s government’s approach to EU deregulation.
Imagine living in a world with no regulations. What would it be like? Would we feel safe? Would we be safe? The reality is that for those of us who live in wealthy, technologically developed societies, we live in a highly regulated world. A world where regulations exist for many reasons, not least to keep us safe. When we jet off to exotic climes for adventure or to relax on a beach, we invest confidence in regulations that govern air travel and ensure pilots are qualified and experienced. If we seek medical attention and perhaps need surgery, we are reassured by the thought that GPs (general practitioners) and surgeons are qualified according to regulations and that medical facilities are compliant with the law. But what about times when we eat, when we drop into a café for a quick meal or pick up a takeaway? How often do we think that eating purchased foodstuffs might be one of the last things we do in our lives? How often do we wonder if those who prepared our food are adequately trained and competent, such that they always provide sustenance which is safe to eat and will cause no harm?
People generally give little thought to the safety of the food they eat. For the most part, they transfer responsibility for their health and safety in matters of food to those who produce, process and sell foodstuffs. This is not unreasonable given the nature of modern food systems which are highly complex, often stretching right around the world, and which commonly deliver industrially processed, formulated food products. Consequently, today, we often take the safety of our food for granted. This has not always been so. Indeed, the need to protect citizens from dishonest food traders gradually led to the regulations that serve us today. One of the earliest of English food regulations was the Assize of Bread and Ale in the 13th century, which controlled the price, weight and quality of bread and beer for the protection and benefit of the consuming public. More significantly, far-reaching regulatory advances arrived in the 19th century when new scientific methods revealed that British citizens were regularly being defrauded and even poisoned by crooked food producers. Dodgy bakers, for instance, added to the weight of bread by incorporating the mineral alum (aluminium sulphate) into their dough, while rogue cheesemakers coloured red Leicester cheese with toxic red lead. Practices we now regard as horrendous were a commonplace in an unregulated food environment and this eventually led to the Sale of Food and Drugs Act 1875, which stated among other things that food shall not be injurious to health and that it shall be of the “nature, substance and quality demanded by the purchaser”. This wording is still in force today in the British Food Safety Act 1990, which subsequently influenced the formation of some of the most important of the European Union’s (EU) food regulations.
Food regulations as components of legislation and government policy, function as irreplaceable moral goods. They underpin both economy and civil society. The United Kingdom’s (UK) National Audit Office records that the purposes of regulation are to “protect and benefit people, businesses and the environment, and to support economic growth”. When it comes to matters of food itself and the food supply system, regulation is essential to the effective governance of: (1) food safety and the health of consumers; (2) consumer information and advertising; (3) food product standards; (3) food processing standards; (4) novel food products and processes; (5) farmed animal welfare; (6) food law enforcement and penalties; (7) food industry emissions and waste management; and (8) environmental protection.
The importance of food safety regulations as a mechanism for protecting us from food-borne harms, e.g. pathogenic micro-organisms, pesticide residues, etc., should be patently obvious. In the absence of regulations, it would be more likely for unsafe foodstuffs to enter the food marketplace. Food regulations also influence and protect our health in other ways. Regulations control ingredients and permitted additives used in food manufacture, ensuring that harmful substances are excluded from the food supply. Regulations are essential for protecting against food fraud and food crime, the occurrence of which is illustrated by the horsemeat incident of 2013, when UK’s meat supply was infiltrated by an illegal material. In 2005 the Sudan 1 scandal caused the largest food product recall in British history, an event that was significantly a consequence of deregulation allowing unscrupulous traders to exploit the diminishment of food system protections. Sudan 1 is one of a number of azo dyes suspected of having carcinogenic properties, which are now commonly banned as food colourings. In 2005, the Food Standards Agency determined that Sudan 1 had entered the British food system via adulterated chilli powder which was used in worcesteshire sauce, subsequently incorporated into a vast number of manufactured foodstuffs. Hence the massive product recall.
Food regulation is of matchless value to food businesses of all kinds and affords many benefits for both food businesses and society, regrettably too many to cover here. Regulations define the boundaries between acceptability and unacceptability in diverse matters of food production and sale. They also reinforce cognitive recognition that food businesses bear distinct moral duties and obligations regarding the safety and well-being of people and the environment. In this respect the moral responsibilities of government in setting regulations are inseparably bound to the creation and publication of regulations which ought to serve the greater good and not the narrow desires of powerful vested interests which at times may seek to influence political processes. Two examples of regulatory authority which embody distinct moral importance in terms of the protection of consumers that have been and are subject to political lobbying favouring vested interests are food labelling and child health. Food labels hold distinct moral value in that they provide correct and truthful product information. This in turn enables consumer autonomy and purchasing choices based on free and informed consent. Regulations which control food advertising can protect child health in a highly competitive marketplace, where manipulative advertising risks the overconsumption of ultra-processed and HFSS (high fat sugar salt) products, with increased levels of diet related diseases presenting in the young.
Food regulation in the UK during much of the last half century has been framed not just by Britain’s sovereign parliamentary processes, but also by the EU with noteworthy and explicit direction from the UK. Food processing and food product standards governed by technical regulations harmonised across the EU have been of immeasurable importance to the economic success and viability of many sectors within the British food industry. Before Brexit, food businesses involved in cross-border trading operated under the requirements of harmonised EU regulations which simplified and lubricated international trade, allowing easy access to the European marketplace unhindered by expensive and time-consuming product quarantines, checks and analyses, etc. This has now changed. With the arrival of Brexit and secession of the UK from the EU, major changes to the UK’s regulatory landscape are on the cards for 2023. At the time of writing, the UK’s Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill of 2022 is passing through the UK’s parliamentary processes in compliance with requirements of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act of 2018. The outcomes and effects of the review of EU regulations for the UK’s food industry, as well as agriculture and the natural environment, are difficult to predict. Britain’s media reports that some 4,000 pieces of Brussels-linked legislation will be removed from the UK’s statute book in what is emotively described as a “bonfire of the regulations”. Will the UK’s government handle food-related EU deregulation with an intelligent degree of caution? Will politicians be able to sidestep tribalistic Brexit agendas? Will they act by reference to a moral compass, so achieving outcomes which serve the common good of food businesses, citizens and the environment etc.? It is too early to say.
From the perspective of the food ethicist and without pre-judging the government’s intentions, it is to be hoped that the process of food-related EU deregulation will not in any way value politically motivated goals over matters of food quality and safety as well as the natural environment. The prospect that ethical egoism on the part of government ministers may take precedence over the government’s moral duty to protect citizens and the environment is worrisome. It is possible for instance, that due to deregulation food products considered illegal within the EU could, at the stroke of a minister’s pen, be declared fit for consumption in Britain. Similarly, the UK government’s enthusiasm for unleashing gene-editing technology as a Brexit dividend embodies a number of moral dilemmas. While the technology may offer intellectually stimulating and profitable opportunities for corporate interests and some farmers, might it also deny the rights of other farmers operating within the national food system such as organic food producers? Might their crops for instance be rendered non-organic through contamination by gene-edited pollen? And will the autonomy of citizens be respected by allowing choice in the consumption of foodstuffs, e.g. food labels identifying gene-edited constituents?
The need to regulate food itself and the businesses which constitute the national food system is in many ways, self-evident. What is not always clear is that the processes of parliamentary legislation, the formulation of food regulations and their application by the food industry represent a moral enterprise of undeniable importance. While the focus of the UK government’s planned EU deregulation project will likely be drawn towards economic factors and corporate influences, it is to be hoped that the ethical dimensions of regulation as a function of government and the moral duties and obligations of ministers and MPs towards citizens as consumers and also society as a whole, will neither be diminished nor overlooked.
Brooks, S., Elliott, C.T., Spence, M. et al. Four years post-horsegate: an update of measures and actions put in place following the horsemeat incident of 2013. npj Sci Food 1, 5 (2017).
Elliott, C.T. 2014. Elliott Review into the Integrity and Assurance of Food Supply Networks – Final Report. A National Food Crime Prevention Framework. London: HM Government.
Mason, B and Slaughter, B. 2005. Deregulation leads to Britain’s largest ever food recall. World Socialist Website, www.wsws.org/en/articles/2005/03/food-m14.html (Accessed: 17 January 2023).
NAO. 2021. Principles of effective regulation. Online PDF. www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Principles-of-effective-regulation-SOff-interactive-accessible.pdf (Accessed: 17 January 2023).