Heather Hancock said it was "nonsense" that the agency was asking companies to regulate themselves or "privatising regulation" of the food sector.
Businesses have to comply with food laws now and they will do in the future, she told FoodNavigator. “No responsible business wants to regulate itself,” she said.
However, this has been the criticism levied at the new programme of food safety regulation in the UK.
Regulating Our Future (ROF) plans under fire
The 'Regulating Our Future' (ROF) regime is the FSA’s attempt to “modernise” the way food businesses are regulated. “We are changing the existing approach to regulating the food industry because we believe it is outdated and becoming increasingly unsustainable,” the agency said last year.
The new regime will, for example, take a risk-based approach, under which the frequency and nature of regulatory intervention will depend on a business' “risk-rating”. As FoodNavigator reported last year, businesses with poor historic compliance may face more inspections than those deemed to be “low risk”. There will also be more reliance on certified regulatory auditors from the private sector.
The new system will therefore be more flexible and cost-effective. However, changes like this have also led to accusations of a new “light touch” approach to food safety. That there have been serious problems at UK meat processing plants in recent months has added fuel to the critics’ fire. There are also concerns that food laws and standards will be relaxed in the UK in order to strike lucrative trade deals after Brexit.
In March, a report published by the Food Research Collaboration, said the timing of the FSA’s changes “could not be worse”, given that the UK government is yet to clarify exactly how it plans to manage the effects of Brexit on the UK food industry.
The authors, Erik Millstone and Tim Lang, professors at the Universities of Sussex and London respectively, highlighted a number of concerns with ROF. For example, instead of public officials inspecting food businesses, companies would pay commercial organisations to “mark their homework”.
The changes would also “undermine” the 1999 Food Safety Act, which assumed that safety and quality standards would be enforced by adequately trained and resourced local authority Environmental Health Officers and Trading Standards Officers in collaboration with Public Analysts.
Millstone and Lang said ROF will “endanger public health and damage UK food exporters after Brexit”.
'Quite a lot of nonsense'
Hancock strongly defended ROF during her speech at the recent Westminster Food and Nutrition Forum in London.
“I have heard quite a lot of nonsense talked about these reforms … that we are privatising food regulation. That couldn’t be further from the truth,” she said.
Speaking to FoodNavigator afterwards, she reiterated that the FSA would not be letting businesses regulate themselves. “From the moment the FSA was set up there has been this argument [that we are privatising regulation]. Responsible businesses rely on an independent regulator to give consumers confidence.”
Hancock also welcomed the additional scrutiny that will come after Brexit. Member states will be looking for any competitive edge they can gain from a system that falls short of the current EU one, she warned.
Other experts at the event also urged ministers to think very carefully before watering down any European food standards. New research presented by Food Standards Scotland chief executive Geoff Ogle showed that consumers “roundly rejected” the idea of trading off lower standards in exchange for lower prices and increased availability.
However, shoppers are more pessimistic than ever regarding Brexit’s impact on food, Ogle said. In the latest wave of consumer polling, almost two in three Scots (65%) think prices will increase (up from 62% in the previous wave), whilst more than a third (36%) say there will be less availability (up from 29%). Some 28% believe the availability of environmentally friendly or sustainable products will fall, compared with 22% in the agency’s previous tracker.
The role of regulation and regulatory assurance will become “even more important” once the UK leaves the European Union, Ogle said. “Levels of regulatory assurance are likely to increase rather than decrease.”