EU Referendum: How would a Brexit affect food?

The UK in a Changing Europe provides independent impartial information, from leading academics, on the UK’s relations with the EU.

This article is written by them to help people understand the potential different impacts of a remain or leave vote.

The views do not necessarily represent those of ITV News


  • Strengths

EU laws also protect the names of certain traditional products, like Cornish pasties

The EU has helped improve food standards. EU rules require that food is safe along the whole food chain – ‘from farm to fork’.

By the time they reach the shop, all food products must meet labelling requirements so that consumers are properly informed about the food they buy.

Having a single set of rules across the EU makes it easier to trade between EU countries – and consumers know that the food will be safe no matter where they buy it.

EU food law has led to a significant increase in the variety of goods sold in our shops with benefits for consumer choice and health. And having common rules makes it is easier for national regulators to work with each other across borders.

If food at one site is leading to food poisoning elsewhere in the EU, it is possible to identify the source quickly and make sure it does not spread further.

EU laws also protect the names of certain traditional products, like Cornish pasties and Welsh lamb. This ensures that consumers are not misled and producers’ reputations are protected.

  • Weaknesses

Long supply chains may make it more difficult to discover food fraud, such as the horsemeat scandal.

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is costly and inefficient in many ways. It pushes up prices for consumers, disadvantages farmers in developing countries and is not always environmentally friendly.

For example, the ‘farm to fork’ system of food safety may discriminate against small businesses that cannot control what happens to food across the product cycle. EU rules tend to promote integrated food chains controlled by large retailers and distributors.

These longer supply chains – the different steps in taking food from ‘farm to fork’ – reach across many countries inside (and outside) the EU’s single market.

Because of this, it may be more difficult to discover food fraud, such as the horsemeat scandal. EU food safety law has historically focused more on preventing food poisoning than on the nutritional content of food.

And as the EU food market remains protected, this means that consumers sometimes have to pay for more expensive products from other EU countries instead of cheaper non-EU alternatives.

  • Opportunities

A genetically modified maize crop

Over the past 15 years, the CAP has become less expensive and more market-friendly.

Subsidies are no longer linked to the level of production, which in the past led to overproduction, resulting in butter mountains and wine lakes.

British food safety regulators have been at the centre of food safety developments within the EU, contributing to the overall improvement of food in Britain and the rest of the EU.

If Britain remained in the EU, this work could continue. If Britain left the EU, it would be able to reassess its regulations on animal health and welfare, food, labelling and standards.

Having national laws replacing the current ones set at EU level could result in less costly and burdensome rules. There might also be an opportunity to explore more innovative methods in food production, including genetically modified organisms and other new foods.

  • Threats

Food would still have to meet EU standard and labelling requirements to be sold in the EU

If the UK stays in the EU, the emphasis on competitiveness, partly brought about by David Cameron’s renegotiation, may put a downward pressure on food quality and food safety standards.

If the UK leaves the EU, food produced in the UK to be sold in the EU would still have to meet EU product standard and labelling requirements, which might make it more expensive to produce.

If the UK becomes a part of the EEA, it could feed into these standard-setting processes, but would not be able to vote on them.

A ‘Brexit’ could also make the UK more vulnerable to pressure from the United States to lower food standards, something which the EU has resisted for two decades.