From 1 February 2020, the UK will no longer be a member of the European Union. Among the list of uncertainties facing food businesses in the UK, is how novel foods will be regulated.
What does leaving the UK mean for companies with EU-approved novel foods? What about those mid-way through their novel food application process, or businesses wanting to get a novel food on the register in the future?
And perhaps more importantly for businesses keen to get their novel foods to market, does Brexit present an opportunity to speed up the process?
Business as usual, for now
“Essentially, nothing changes on the 1st February, at least in the short term,” according to Professor Peter Gregory, chair of the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP).
The ACNFP is an independent committee that advises the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) on matters relating to novel foods, novel food processes, traditional foods, and genetically modified foods. Its primary function is to undertake safety assessments of notification of novel foods.
“EU regulations will be transferred, as they exist, into UK law,” he explained at the Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum last week in London. This means that the FSA will oversee novel food applications, rather than the European Food and Safety Authority (EFSA).
The FSA’s Ruth Willis, team leader of Regulated Products Risk Assessment, seconded that no changes are forecast in the short term.
Novel foods currently authorised under EU law, and approved for market in the UK, will remain authorised. The same goes for novel foods that are approved during the transition period – which will begin next month and run until 31 December 2020.
And for those businesses mid-way through the process as of 31 December? The FSA is still considering how best to deal with such applications, Willis revealed. “We can’t give a definitive position on that yet, it is something we are thinking about.”
An ‘arduous’ and ‘onerous’ process
A ‘business as usual’ approach may be welcomed by those with an approved novel food, or companies due to receive authorisation before the end of 2020.
However, not all companies – and in particular younger or smaller firms – may be celebrating this news, suggested Sian Edmunds, partner at Burges Salmon.
The head of the law firm’s Food and Drink team described the existing regulatory regime as ‘arduous and onerous’ for food businesses.
“There is a long process they have to go through, and quite an expensive process they have to go through, to collate all the data. And then there is a very long process of waiting for EFSA to provide an authorisation and get the product on the list.”
With ‘pretty much’ the same regime applied post-Brexit, when EU legislation is transposed to the UK, Edmunds stressed that the process will take ‘a minimum of a year’. This is backed up by FSA guidance.
Sam Jennings, fellow of the Institute of Food Science and Technology (IFST) in the UK, similarly regretted the novel foods application timeline – for both novel foods and health claims.
“I think we’ve all seen how long health claims can take [to prove],” she said. “Even if you have a positive opinion from EFSA, it has got to pass around 28 – soon to go down to 27 – Member States, who have got to confirm that…they are happy to have this health claim in [their] country.”
If a novel food is for a vitamin or a mineral, with a health claim attached, the timing for industry is ‘utterly ridiculous’, she added.
Brexit: An opportunity for novel foods?
It may be that leaving the EU will automatically quicken this process. Transferring from a system with 28 ‘very different’ Member States, to a
system with just four nations ‘with very similar diets’ could prove advantageous, suggested IFST’s Jennings.
“The length of time that things took to get through increased dramatically when we went from 15 Member States to well over 20,” Jennings recalled. “If you increase the size of the committee, everything takes longer.”
Withdrawal from the EU may also present opportunities to streamline risk assessments, and thus, speed up the regulatory process, the IFST fellow suggested.
“I’m not proposing that there is any streamlining on safety. I think safety is absolutely critical.” However, Jennings does believe that streamlining could be undertaken for a ‘proportion’ of the assessment.
Burges Salmon partner Edmunds similarly stressed the importance of safety. Barriers that prevent progress in innovation, trade, and business, however, are not the answer, we were told.
“I’m not suggesting that we throw the safety baby out with the bathwater, but I think Brexit is an opportunity for us to really assess whether this a ‘fit for purpose’ process” - Sian Edmunds, partner at Burges Salmon.
For Edmunds, there is an opportunity here, ‘if we are bold enough to seize it’. “We could be becoming very innovative as a UK market. We could be…[looking] at how we can speed up the regulation process, and how we can make it aligned with the practical realities on the ground…”