Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans. At a board meeting in May 2016, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) set out its intention to overhaul the way food businesses are regulated in the UK. A month later, those plans were knocked sideways by the vote to leave the EU.
Unbowed, the FSA has pressed on with its Regulating Our Future (ROF) programme. It says the way food safety is regulated has become outdated and is no longer sustainable, and wants to replace the ‘one size fits all’ approach with a regulatory private assurance model, more tailored to the risk of individual businesses.
Despite concerns raised by industry over its implementation and cost burden – its chair, Heather Hancock, remains determined that the majority of the proposals outlined in ROF will be up and running by 2020.
While she concedes she is likely to have seen out her time at the FSA before the ultimate aim of a comprehensive ‘permit to trade’ system is in place, Hancock remains confident that ROF will start to rollout this year – Brexit or no Brexit.
“There are some parts of the programme that inevitably depend on the nature of our future relationship with the EU, but I’m fairly confident we’ll be pretty much there by 2020,” she claims.
Central to ROF is an advanced registration system, which the FSA says will make it easier for new businesses to understand what food safety standards are required of them.
Within this, it is anticipated a more open and transparent approach to data sharing will emerge – which, in turn, will enable the FSA to better identify emerging risks along the supply chain.
Sharing data concerns (back to top)
This sharing of data, however, has proved to be one of the chief concerns voiced by food firms, sensitive to the commercial implications. Hancock maintains it is “absolutely possible” to come up with a mechanism that will give the FSA the insight and evidence it is looking for, without compromising commercial interests.
“There’s been much talk of food businesses ‘giving away’ data. All we want is access to data – we’re not suggesting it changes hands,” she says.
Hancock firmly believes the more transparency there is around food safety in a business environment, the better. She claims her view was backed up by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Select Committee last October into the alleged food safety breaches at 2 Sisters’ West Bromwich site.
“EFRA’s conclusions were entirely in-line with ours – that all this data exists, but it’s being kept in silos. It’s not being shared, and we’re not able to use it to form a better judgement about the behaviour of a business, or its compliance.”
Another, possibly more vociferous argument against ROF, is that a greater reliance on third-party audits is another creeping step towards industry self-regulation.
“It’s never been, and will never be about self-regulation,” refutes Hancock. “I do struggle with that assumption when I hear it.
“We are not saying there will be no public body inspection, review, or oversight process in all of this – there’s still got to be a level of assurance of a business’s compliance. All we want is more and better data on which to base that decision.”
One area she concedes on is that ultimately, the private sector will have to bear the cost of regulation, in line with government policy.
The private sector (back to top)
“At the end of the day, this system has to be paid for. I’ve not seen anyone beating a path to our door with buckets of newly-minted coins for us to deliver an extensive food safety regime.
“Whatever the charging system will be, we’ve first of all got to be absolutely confident that the new approach is the right, and most efficient way of regulating the sector.”
It is an approach that could yet be undermined by the outcome of the Brexit process. Hancock acknowledges that questions around how risk management and risk assessment functions will work and be governed remain unanswered.
However, she believes fears that the UK’s exit from the EU may result in a “chasm” in food safety regulation are completely unfounded.
“Based on the work that’s happening at the FSA, I can’t see how we’re going to have that chasm. EU food safety law has to be moved into UK law, and any legislative underpinning has to be in place for us to be able to operate. It’s as simple as that, and it will be done.”
Hancock is also keen to point out that the European Food Safety Authority also relies on input from non-EU members.
Therefore, she believes there is “every opportunity” for the FSA and the wider UK science community to engage with it in the future, depending on “what sort of level of concentric circle we are in”.
Rapid alert system (back to top)
Brexit also raises questions around the UK’s involvement in RASFF – the EU’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed.
Hancock acknowledges that it would be “really useful” to carry on working with RASFF, with the system’s ability to track and trace the movement of food products the most important aspect of all.
However, she maintains that if direct future involvement isn’t possible, the FSA will continue to run its own surveillance activities.
“Also, it’s not like we will be barred from understanding what’s going on with RASFF, it’s just that the relationship with the UK may be different,” Hancock adds.
Overall, Hancock believes the demands of Brexit will “almost certainly” mean the FSA needing additional resources – a demand that she says has so far been met by the three UK governments it works with. “I’ve had no indication that any of them are overlooking the importance of food safety and food standards.”
Hancock remains hopeful that there will be more clarity over Brexit in the immediate months ahead. But regardless of whether that happens or not, her intention is to press on with ROF.
“By this summer, we’ll be in a really good place to know how the enhanced registration is going to work, and the benefit it’s going to deliver ourselves, local authorities and business,” she says.
“We are not going to wait until 2020 and launch everything in one fell swoop. Once trials are over, expect the rollout to start soon.”
JOB TITLE: Chairman, Food Standards Agency
DOMESTICS: Lives in North Yorkshire. Married, with two sons.
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Hancock joined the board of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) as deputy chair in October 2015, in advance of becoming chairman in April 2016.
She took on one of the most high-profile roles in the food industry on back of an illustrious career at financial services firm Deloitte, where she was a managing partner in the UK and Switzerland from 2008 to 2014.
Hancock also served as a member of the global leadership team, and led Deloitte’s services to the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Her earlier career included serving as Private Secretary to three Home Secretaries, establishing the Millennium Commission as its chief executive, and being chief executive of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority and executive director of Yorkshire Forward.
Other roles include serving as a board member of the Global Social Progress Imperative and as trustee of the International Business Leaders Forum.She also chaired the BBC’s Rural Affairs Committee for seven years.
In 2013, Hancock was awarded the Lieutenant Victoria Order in the New Year Honours for her contribution to The Prince’s Trust, where she was a Trustee for more than a decade and led a series of rural revival initiatives for HRH The Prince of Wales.