What is Environmental Health?
Environmental Health in the UK is designed to monitor, improve and maintain the practical features of Public Health standards around environmental protection and safety at work. In basic terms, it is what companies and organisations have to do to make sure their activities cause no harm. It operates within sectors such as:
- Private Sector Housing
- Environmental Protection
- Health & Safety
- Food Safety
- And many more…
At Oyster we work within the Environmental Health Sector by contracting roles for people to work within each area of Environmental Health in the UK. Most of our placements are within the councils, however Private Sector companies such as Pret, HS2, Harrods and Student Housing also offer many opportunities.
Food Safety and Current Legislation
Food safety is one of the biggest areas of Environmental Health that we work with, and with Brexit creeping up on us, it’s going to be the one area that impacts us all, whether we work in the industry or not.
While the UK is still a member of the European Union, our Food Safety standards are governed by EU rules and regulations that keep our food to a high quality and safe to eat. EU agencies that we work with research and investigate any possible risks to health in our food chains and they then share their knowledge with us. 40% of all EU legislation relates to food including production, packaging and importing, so without them we will be losing much of our knowledge and expertise.
So What Will Brexit Change for our Food?
It is important for us all to realise that the UK doesn’t feed itself. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA)’s own statistics show that the UK’s ability to feed itself has consistently dropped since the highs of the 1980s. In 1984 we were able to feed ourselves with 95% of indigenous food types. The last available records for this data were from 2009 and back then the numbers had dropped to 72%, and we know that they have kept dropping. ‘If we consider the flow of unprocessed foods, the UK supplied less than half (49%) of its unprocessed food in 2016.’
Recent analysis from the food and farming alliance, Sustain, indicates that our domestic regulators are currently ill equipped for the increase in work load expected when we leave the EU. We have been told that if we leave both the customs union and single market there will be extra border checks on food and animal health.
We will need to strike new international trade deals for food and the most logical and likely option will be to trade with the US. However, food poisoning rate is 10 times higher in the US than in the EU. There are other considerable risks to consider if we start trading with the US. These include:
Chlorine Washed Chicken – US chicken has been banned in the UK since 1997 because they wash their chickens with chlorine to reduce bacteria. Although the chlorine itself isn’t toxic at the level used, the reasons why they use it are pretty disgusting – basically the hygiene standard for the chickens are so poor that they need to be disinfected before eaten.
Pesticides – These are used much more frequently on crops in the US than the Uk. Our maximum levels are also much lower currently in the UK which would mean, if we import crops from the US, the amount of pesticides that we would be ingesting would increase significantly.
Food additives – The US products contain a wider range of additives, some of which are unacceptable in the UK. Bread in the US for example contains potassium bromate and azodicarbonamide – definitely not ingredients we should be eating with our marmite in the morning!
Food labelling – US standards around how they label their food are far lower than EU/UK. They contain much less information about what is in their food, what nutritional value they hold and what potential allergens will be in them.
What Else Could Happen?
In an ideal world we will maintain standards set within EU. However, Sustain’s research would suggest that in order to do this we would need to take over the monitoring and regulatory responsibilities from EU agencies and we are currently far from ready or able to do this. Kath Dalmeny, Chief Executive of Sustain, said: “Our food safety is critical and yet it is clear that as a nation we are hopelessly underprepared to exit the customs union and single market. Regulation has been a dirty word of late, condemned as ‘red tape’ that holds the industry back, but when it comes to food safety, we need strong rules and inspections. We all expect the food on our plates to be safe. We need fresh commitments from government to give the people who keep our food safe the proper resources they need.”
There has also been much hype about food shortages taking place, with many people already stockpiling food in their homes for the “Brexit Famine”!
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Especially for the job market. If there is a push towards self sufficiency, we will need to be producing more of our own food which will increase jobs within the UK. Also, as Kath Dalmeny stated, we will need commitment from the government and environmental agencies to ensure that we have the staff and resources needed to maintain the standards of food health and safety that we currently have. Yes, according to Sustain, we are underprepared and under resourced currently. That simply means Public and Private Sectors will be needing a lot more Environmental Health Officers for audits and inspections which means more jobs and more work for all.