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Opinion

How might the UK gain from less food law?

By Clare Cheney , 06-Feb-2013
Last updated the 06-Feb-2013 at 10:40 GMT

Clare Cheney, director general, Provision Trade Federation

Clare Cheney, director general, Provision Trade Federation

In November 2012, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) announced the start of a review of the impact of the EU on the UK or, in eurospeak, a 'review of the balance of competences' - a somewhat opaque term to which the voter in the street is unlikely to relate, even if they are aware of the initiative. The FCO described the review in more user-friendly terms as an 'audit of what the EU does and how it affects the UK'.

The conclusions in the final report in 2014 will be extremely important because they will provide a clear picture of whether the UK's membership of the EU is advantageous or disadvantageous.

Whether or not it is connected with the prime minister's intention to renegotiate the UK's terms of membership of the EU, the report will undoubtedly inform that debate and those with strong views must use this chance to put their case.

Open to criticism

Each government department is conducting its own review to feed into the overall report and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and Food Standards Agency (FSA) have joined forces for this purpose. Looking at the areas relevant to food that they and the Department of Health (DH) encompass, it is hard to identify many that are not open to criticism or even ridicule. But the review is calling for hard evidence not opinion.

Starting to prepare a notional list of examples to answer some of the questions set out by DEFRA/FSA and DH, there seem to be more in the disadvantageous category than advantageous. However, even when viewed on a collective basis, the question arises as to whether they really matter in the grand scheme of things, now that they are set in tablets of stone, the horse has bolted and chances of repeal or significant amendment at EU level in the near future are virtually zero.

Less, less, less

More realistic is one of DEFRA's questions asking: 'How might the UK benefit from the EU taking more or less action on food law in the future'? The food industry is duty- bound to call for 'less, less, less' and to back this up with strong arguments including why there is too much already.

Another question asking for ways to improve EU food law would best be answered along the lines of: 'Leave well alone and introduce no more'. If the Commission decided to what it laughingly calls 'simplify' existing legislation, we will probably end up with more of it as a result of past Commission 'simplifications'.

The added benefit of a do no more policy would be that there would be grounds for the number of Commission officials to be reduced and costs would fall.