I thank the committee for inviting safefood Ireland here today. The Chairman has already introduced everyone, but I would add that Mr. Paul Gibbons is an environmental health officer in the Border area so he may be able to answer some of the questions with a first-hand perspective.
Our opening statement deals with the potential implications for safefood, the food safety promotion board, from Brexit. safefood, one of six implementation bodies set up under the Good Friday Agreement, is a food safety promotion agency, and as such, has no food regulatory role nor involvement in mitigation of the potential implications and consequences to the efficient and effective post-Brexit operation of the food control framework on this island.
Its mandate covers both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and, accordingly, we must operate in two jurisdictions that may have two different legislative frameworks post-Brexit for various aspects that may impact the effective operation of food safety and nutrition promotion. These frameworks include food law, public health, employment law, taxation, pension law, data protection law, human rights, freedom of information and controls on movement of people, goods, services and capital, the four freedoms of the single market. It is expected that the political, legislative and operational consequences of Brexit for safefood will only become apparent towards the completion of the withdrawal agreement and-or transition period. safefood has identified potential Brexit issues that may have implications for both its legislative mandate and the framework within which it operates, and general operational processes which I will outline here.
The Border will represent a barrier to safefood's effective working. There has been much commentary and speculation as to the effects of Brexit in regard to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and the potential significant risk to both community cohesion in Northern Ireland, and the cross-Border and North-South dimensions of the ongoing peace and reconciliation process. The Good Friday Agreement is an international agreement registered with the UN, with Ireland and the UK acting as co-guarantors, and is financially supported by the EU. For all parties, the avoidance of a hard border on the island of Ireland is a key priority.
One of the most valuable outcomes of the EU cross-border programmes has been the facilitation of multi-level cross-Border networks where partnership working has effected a real change in culture for civil society organisations.
safefood has operated in both jurisdictions for over 18 years, running programmes of food safety and public health nutrition promotional activity for both consumers, food producers, regulators, public health professionals, scientists and academics. It has not only focused on enhancing knowledge and encouraging positive behaviour change, but also developing cross-Border working, partnership and collaboration. The possibility of a hard border or barrier will make the achievement of our objectives far more challenging in terms of encouraging and fostering multidisciplinary and multisectoral collaboration. For safefood, a hard border will actively discourage partnership, joint working, be a barrier for those who wish and choose to collaborate, and a reason for those who do not value North-South co-operation to obstruct meaningful work and mutual benefit.
In the absence of any legislative changes, safefood would still continue to function, however the costs of North-South working and co-operation would increase as a result of the likely emergence of new practical and policy impediments to meaningful collaboration, and the necessity for two different strategic and tactical approaches to public health promotional activity, North and South.
I refer to the general North-South partnership working and potential implications for safefood. Common EU legislation, policies, guidelines and approaches have supported safefood’s ability to deliver its remit and functions of promoting food safety and healthy eating across the island of Ireland. Promoting North-South co-operation, which is an inherent part of our work, may be adversely affected once Brexit is complete and certainly the introduction of a hard border will be seen as a major obstacle to joint working. It will be far more difficult to initiate and sustain effective North-South working relationships.
As a North-South body, safefood has successfully operated in both jurisdictions since inception and an open border has facilitated openness, awareness of others working in similar fields and opportunities for various organisations to partner and work together for mutual benefit. safefood has firmly established itself as constructive working partners with organisations across the island of Ireland and have established a strong network of stakeholder relationships. With an approved staff count of only 30 and a challenging work portfolio, these relationships are key and essential to achieving safefood’s legislative mandate and objectives.
At present, staff based at the Cork headquarters often travel to and from work in Northern Ireland, which is a significant journey and sacrifice. safefood is alone among all the North-South bodies in not having a staffed Northern Ireland office. The introduction of a hard border post-Brexit will, in the absence of a staffed Northern Ireland office, pose a tremendous challenge to both our capability and capacity to identify and provide local and regional public health promotional services across Northern Ireland. We anticipate that a hard border will only accentuate present challenges faced by staff and the core need to have a sustainable and valued safefood presence in Northern Ireland.
The future regulatory landscape in the UK is not clear other than the passing of the great repeal Bill for all current EU legislation. There is strong potential for regulatory divergence in food safety legislation and standards between the EU and the UK, but the timescale is uncertain. The final political decision around access to markets and possible tariffs will be a key determinant.
There may be a hierarchy of standards in the UK. For instance, UK-based food producers exporting into the EU will need to comply with EU law but those supplying the domestic UK market may not. Furthermore, as the UK produces only 54% of the food it requires, it will need to import significant quantities of food, perhaps from non-EU regions across the world where standards are typically not as robust as those set in place by the EU. This aspect is particularly relevant given the porous nature of the Border on the island. The key question is whether the final negotiations will agree on food safety regulatory equivalence or alignment.
Any divergence in legislation, policies, guidelines and approaches governing food safety and public health nutrition in the two jurisdictions, North and South, will be a challenge for safefood in delivering its remit and functions which will become more complex. At present, food safety legislation has its origins in EU directives and regulations and, therefore, most organisations involved in the food chain, North and South, comply with the same standards set by regulators. The agrifood sector is very significant in both economies and any divergence in food safety standards, affecting for example, manufacturing, labelling, packaging standards and certification between the UK and the EU will lead to complications for the food sectors on the island of Ireland and to confusion and concern among consumers.
Significant divergences in areas of food safety will pose immediate challenges in regard to safefood promotional programmes and activities for food producers and processors, and science and academic communities generally. Opinions vary on the degree and nature of these potential legislative divergences. Food labelling aspects include the removal of country of origin labels and producer name and address have been mentioned, in addition to possible changes to labelling of various types of meats and substitute ingredients together with new guidance on aspects such as fresh pure and natural, vegetarian and vegan.
The UK may review use by and best before date periods to make what it considers to be sensible and practical guidance. However, the most practical changes will come in the area of interpretative nutrition information, including traffic light labelling. A very realistic example of potential divergence in the area of public health can be found in the August 2016 report, Childhood obesity: a plan for action, published by the UK Government which states:
The UK’s decision to leave the European Union will give us greater flexibility to determine what information should be presented on packaged food, and how it should be displayed. We want to build on the success of our current labelling scheme, and review additional opportunities to go further and ensure we are using the most effective ways to communicate information to families. This might include clearer visual labelling, such as teaspoons of sugar, to show consumers about the sugar content in packaged food and drink.
Were this divergence to be significant and the need for safefood to develop jurisdictional specific programmes realised, there would be significant additional operational costs if safefood had to develop two separate versions of media promotional campaigns, resources and advisory guidance. Such activity would require substantial additional external support and assistance in view of the staff cap and notably the increase in opportunity costs. Regulatory stability in the UK will be essential, as will non-tariff barriers such as border delays, transport of ingredients back and forth for single finished food products etc. It should also be noted that the UK will now have to set up specific food standard validation functions currently exercised by the EU, such as risk assessment and communication from the European Food Safety Authority, EFSA, surveillance from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control etc. Will these functions be as robust and acceptable as current EU models?
I refer to data and information sharing and the potential implications for safefood. Data and information exchange, which is essential to safefood’s evidence-based promotional role, has worked well between state agencies and organisations in both jurisdictions. This willingness has been facilitated by enhanced North-South working relationships and through our shared membership of EU, Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland public health and food safety families and bodies such as the Public Health Agency in Northern Ireland, the HSE, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, the Food Standards Agency in the UK, and the EFSA. In addition, safefood’s well-developed research function accumulates significant volumes of raw and aggregate data and information from research projects completed by various academic and other institutions in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the UK. Currently, EU data protection laws put restrictions on movement of data outside of the European Economic Area and, accordingly, significant divergence in data protection legislation in the UK could pose an insurmountable obstacle for the type of data and information sharing that forms the key evidence base that underpins all our consumer and food supply chain messaging and guidance, and indeed our priority legislative function.
I refer to external activities and administrative issues. When procuring goods and services, will one EU tendering process be replaced by a dual EU and UK tendering process? Will there be any issue with retaining our website address which is safefood.eu at the moment? Will mutual recognition of qualifications continue post Brexit? Will the legal status of contracts entered into with UK organisations before and after the exit date be affected? Will the basis, contractual and otherwise, of the commissioning of research by safefood be impacted? Will changes in the common trade and travel area between the UK and the Republic of Ireland impact on staff and the board and committee members and speakers at events travelling between and working in Northern Ireland and the Republic and vice versa? I mention the risk of currency fluctuations between the euro and pound sterling and whether the cross jurisdictional North-South pension scheme which supports all six North-South bodies can continue to exist.