12 Jun 2020

In February 2019 and again in February 2020 I wrote blog posts on the issue of Brexit, food and nutrition, and set out the BDA’s position on these important issues. The BDA as a whole does not hold a view on the merits of Brexit itself. However, we have been very clear, in both our public communications and our communication with governments, that there are certain standards and protections that need to be in place whatever final form Brexit takes.

Given recent news headlines around the both the government’s negotiations with the EU and the United States, and reports that the UK continues to plan in the eventuality of a “no deal” Brexit, I thought it would be helpful to look again at these issues and once again set out our Association’s position.

Ensuring food security

COVID-19 has highlighted some of the weaknesses of the UK’s current food system, including how susceptible our food supplies are to interruption. Many of us will have had patients, clients, friends or family members who found it difficult to access food during the early stages of the pandemic, and some will still be struggling. Despite the best efforts of the food sector, we saw empty shelves and key items like infant formula and specialist foods in very short supply.

It is not implausible to think that the UK may find itself with similar challenges in the immediate aftermath of Brexit, especially if we are not able to negotiate effective arrangements with our European neighbours, who provide a significant proportion of our food and our agricultural workforce. Issues may not just be with the availability of food, but cost as well, which would disproportionately impact the most vulnerable.

Of course, the UK needs to be doing far more to tackle the shameful rates of malnutrition, food insecurity and poverty that existed pre-COVID and even pre-Brexit, but those are matters for another blog.

Specialist nutrition products

Alongside normal food and drink, we know that specialist nutrition products are vitally important to many of our patients and clients. However, their supply chains are also more vulnerable, with many of these highly specialist products only produced in small quantities by a narrow range of manufacturers. As a result, any delays at borders could leave patients lacking essential supplies. The crisis with Calea (a UK parenteral feed supplier) last year has acutely illustrated the fragility of the system.

In the past two years at points when it was thought that there might be disruption, certain products were stockpiled in anticipation of a “no deal” Brexit. However, COVID-19 has all but emptied out stockpiled supplies, which would include some products essential to our patients. Government has previously promised to guarantee the provision of essential products in the event of border delays.

Food standards, public health and the NHS

COVID-19 has also, understandably, overshadowed the ongoing negotiations around the UK’s future trading relationships with both the EU and other nations, in particular the US. However, there is now rising concern that these negotiations could have a negative impact on our food system. As the Government remains insistent that the transition period will end on 31st December 2020, there is limited time to change course.

The government has previously promised that the UK’s high food safety, animal welfare and environmental standards will not be sacrificed in pursuit of a trade deal. This seems now to be up for negotiation. A real concern with a tariff-based approach, rather than a ban on lower quality products, is that we will create a two-tier food system where consumers are not aware that some food is of poorer quality.

There is also concern about whether the UK will be ready, especially given the disruption caused by COVID-19, to put in place whole new system for agriculture, inspection and food safety that was previously determined at the European level.

Another key concern has been about the potential impact of any future trade deals on the NHS, where many of our members work. Concerns about further privatisation or changes to broader competition rules or regulation that might impact on the NHS remain despite regular assurances from government that it is “not for sale”.

What do we want to see done about it?

On food security, the government must have in place a concrete plan to address any increase in food prices or gaps in availability. It is not enough to leave this to retailers, farmers and importers. Providing funding to reduce the cost of foods, providing emergency packs (improving on those provided during the COVID-19 pandemic) and supporting industry to quickly tackle blockages must all form part of this plan.

This clear plan must also include detail of how the government, working with industry, will ensure the ongoing supply of specialist nutrition products to patients. As with medicines, if urgent supplies need to be brought in by other means, a plan must be in place.

We expect government to stick to its original promises not to degrade UK food standards, animal welfare or environmental standards. We should only strengthen our standards, and poorer quality, more dangerous, cruel or environmentally damaging products must not be allowed onto the UK market at all.

We continue to support the Faculty of Public Health’s healthy trade policy campaign, which calls for public health standards to be maintained post Brexit.

The BDA’s clear position has and always will be that the NHS must not be for sale. We are against any further privatisation of the NHS and will campaign strongly against any changes that weaken the NHS, medicines regulation or competition rules.

We will continue to make representations to relevant government departments and communicate what we are doing with you. If these are issues that concern you, I would also urge you to contact your own elected representatives. The BDA has advice on contacting elected officials that you can find here.  

BDA Blogs

Author

Caroline Bovey

Chair, British Dietetic Association