British food could be ‘demonised’ in EU after Brexit, says UEA law professor

Prof Owen Warnock speaking at the Brexit, Bees and the Brown Stuff event at the UEA Enterprise Centr

Prof Owen Warnock speaking at the Brexit, Bees and the Brown Stuff event at the UEA Enterprise Centre. Picture: Chris Hill. - Credit: Chris Hill

East Anglia's food producers should prepare for the possibility that their goods could be 'demonised' in Europe after Brexit, as the EU seeks to protect its own industries.

That was among the expert insights from University of East Anglia academics at an event aiming to unravel the complex interactions between science, technology, policy, practice and the markets – and how they affect East Anglian agriculture.

The 'Brexit, Bees and the Brown Stuff' event, hosted jointly by the UEA and accountancy firm Lovewell Blake, featured speakers including Prof Owen Warnock of the UEA School of Law, who looked at how EU food laws might change after Brexit.

While the UK parliament would be free to amend EU food laws, he said the 'practical realities' of Brexit included that the remaining EU countries could try to discourage food imports from the UK through border checks, punitive tariffs, and demanding certification for organic or genetically modified foods be made by EU bodies rather than the UK's.

'I think there will be lots of legal and cultural steps in the rest of the EU to discourage food imports to the union from the UK,' he said.

'There are going to be loads of checks at borders, for example, the certification bodies will be the EU ones and not the UK ones, there will be a demonisation in the media of products made to any UK standards that are different.

'Even if we can show this stuff has been made in the UK to EU standards there will be suggestions that our monitoring bodies probably aren't as good as the EU ones, and therefore you should be suspicious.

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'On the one hand they will try to make our product legally and culturally very unattractive in the rest of the EU, whilst trying to protect their exports of food to us.'

Prof Warnock said all EU-derived law, such as those on food labelling, would remain in force after exit day – even if the UK 'crashes out of the EU' with no deal – and parliament would then be free to amend legislation if it chose to.

'I think we would have to ask though, why change rules that we are already used to?' he said. 'We always did have, for example, food labelling regulations since long before were a member of the EU, so why would we want to change the ones we are all used to?

'Indeed, if we did, would any food producers make use of them because presumably they would want to sell some of their output into Europe, in which case that stuff would have to be made to their standards they approve.

'So it doesn't seem to me very likely that the industry will push very hard to change those regulations. But there might be some where we feel we want to get away from EU rules we don't like, such as heavy restrictions on health claims or the ECJ (European Court of Justice) decision that gene editing should count as genetic modification.'

Other speakers at the UEA Enterprise Centre discussed soil health and ecological projects, agri-tech developments and the importance of utilising consumer data to meet shopper demand.


In response to Prof Warnock's comments, a government spokesman said: 'There is no reason to believe that consumers in the EU will want to stop buying British food when we leave - any more than we'd stop wanting theirs. And the environment secretary has been absolutely clear that we will not water down our high food safety and animal welfare standards as a result of any future free trade agreements.

'As part of the prime minister's Brexit deal, we have agreed a free trade area with the EU, with no tariffs, fees, charges or restrictions on volume of goods - including food.

'We have also agreed strong rules to keep competition fair, so neither the UK nor EU can unfairly subsidise their industries against the other.

'It would not be in the interest of either side to discourage trade within this unprecedented new partnership – a fact recognised in both Brussels and the UK.'