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A Perfect Storm: Brexit, The Pandemic And Food Contamination

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Published on 26 July 2021

Food safety culture
Food safety culture

Food poisoning is a global challenge with over 600 million cases each year, resulting in over 420,000 deaths per year. Its causes and effects are not ring fenced to street food traders and developing nations but are highly evidenced in affluent economies. For instance, in the USA, annually 48 million people suffer food poisoning, resulting in 3,000 deaths. The figure for the European region is 23 million with just under 5,000 deaths a year. In terms of the UK, the estimated number of food contaminations is 2.4 million with 180 deaths per year, costing the UK economy over £1bn a year. Thus, the war against food contamination is far from over.

The UK has witnessed an increase in the number of ‘zero rated’ food manufactures requiring prompt improvements to food hygiene standards. Current data indicates that food and drink recalls have increased by 62% and allergen recalls by 78% and the number of foreign bodies found in food and drinks has also increased 350%.  One needs only to visit customer services in supermarkets to identify the number of product recalls. This week the US food producer Tyson Foods is recalling almost 4,500 tons of ready-to-eat chicken products after finding that products may be tainted with listeria bacteria and is the largest product recall in history.

Given that employee behaviour is the first line of defence against food contamination. The food sector has over the past ten years started to recognise the strategic importance of a positive food safety culture and in 2018, quality assurance certification bodies lead by the British Retail Consortiums Global Food Standards, has now made it an audited requirement to its members, to demonstrate how they are managing their food safety cultures. This initiative coincided with EC regulation 2021/382 to refine and enhance Food Safety Management System’s via food safety cultural audits as there is clear evidence indicating that a positive food safety culture  reduces non-compliances and increases employee morale, business sustainability and growth. However, the fulcrum of their effectiveness is dependent upon employee compliance.

Some 13 years after the economic recession of 2008, which cost the UK between £1.8trn and £7.4trn, its effects were still evidenced in terms of low UK productivity and consumer spending. The economy was further agitated by the Brexit vote to leave, a divorce bill  in the region of £33 billion and UK plc leaving without a secure future.  Such a challenge pales into insignificance when the world was blindsided  with the sudden and devastating effects of the sixth  pandemic since 1918, forcing the government to initially lock down the economy for all but essential services. Whilst we may be slowly lifting the page on the pandemic, its effects are very much present with over 4 million deaths, and  over 185 million cases.

The Office for Statistics indicated that the pandemic has affected the food and drink sector more than any other sector of the UK economy. The sector suffered an 89% drop in business, resulting in 675,000 sector specific job losses. Despite the growth in supermarket profits, the OFS also indicated that 23% of businesses had suspended operations. The number of companies having to suspend their operations due to Covid outbreaks also of concern and are attributable to the cramped working conditions of the workforce, who often struggled to understand quality procedures.

Amongst the trauma of the pandemic, the Brexit deal was finally agreed having almost gone to the wire on December 31st, 2020. Initially, a ‘zero-tariff, zero-quota’ appeared a good deal by the food sector. However, under the rule of origin, UK businesses are required demonstrate why they are entitled for a tariff free entry into the EU for each product and that all contents must be produced in the UK. Products with ingredients from other countries outside the UK/EU will be affected and this will have a significant impact on supply chain operations.

UK exports of dairy and meat now have to demonstrate compliance in areas such as, animal welfare and slaughter methods. Fish exporters are struggling to export to the EU, due to delays in completing the required Health Certificates for each catch of different species and from which ports. Such delays have resulted in lost sales, as the shelf life of the sea food in many cases had expired. Furthermore, the UK government’s decision to conceded to a regulatory boarder between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, referred to as the Northern Ireland Protocol, has further contributed to the complexity in completing the necessary document and physical checks, resulting in a reduction in supermarket products.

 The pressures of Covid 19, Brexit, and the battle against food contamination has created what can be best described as the perfect storm for the food sector. Many food producers are struggling to recalibrate their business models to stay competitive. A key catalyst in their future viability is very much dependant in having established a positive food safety culture. As employees are the first line of defence and without fostering their support, the number of product recalls, food poisoning and deaths will continue.



More about Professor Derek Watson

  • Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.
  • Founder of the University’s ‘Business Clinic’ and leads the University’s Doctoral ‘Research Fridays’ programme.
  • Extensive experience of innovation and technology transfer and mapping skills requirements in emerging sectors.
  • International lead auditor with global links as a result of sourcing and embedding innovative opportunities across the curriculum
  • International portfolio of clients, such as the British Cabinet Office, Indian Government, Dubai Police and Canon International.
  • Research focuses on academic-industry innovative collaboration and investigating the impact of knowledge exchange on practice in both the classroom and the workplace.
  • An active external examiner, academic editor of international journal publications and a visiting Professor at Sias Business School and Sias Academy for Open Innovation International University in China, the Technological University of Panama and Senior Research Fellow at the Cyprus Business School, Cyprus.
  • Areas of expertise - Food Safety, Cultural Compliance, Innovation and Technology Transfer, Total Quality Management, Transformational Change, Changing Mindsets.