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Consultations present a basket full of issues for the food and drink sector

Consultations present a basket full of issues for the food and drink sector

Proper consultation is not a word that many associate with the Brexit process in Westminster.

However it does seem to be in vogue when it comes to the food and drink sector, particularly in Scotland. Indeed, given the number of consultations currently running, you could be forgiven for thinking Brexit wasn’t really happening.

Perhaps it is an impressive demonstration of the wheels of government still turning on other pressing issues.  But will businesses be able to focus on the issues raised by these consultations when they have Brexit to deal with?

The latest consultation to be announced UK-wide follows on from the Pret scandal. It covers food that is made, pre-packed then sold on the same premises. Pret and Greggs are examples of this -  indeed the popular conceptions these brands raise may metaphorically represent some of the issues in the Brexit debate: the affluent Pret customer from the south east; the Greggs customer from the less affluent North East.

The current rules do not require food prepared on the premises where it is sold to display allergen information on the package. The parents of the teenager Natasha Ednan-Laperouse have campaigned for a change since her death following an allergic reaction to sesame in a Pret baguette. Four options are being proposed: mandatory full ingredients labelling; mandatory allergen-only labelling; mandatory ‘ask the staff’ labels on all products with other information available in writing; or promoting best practice around communicating allergen information to consumers. 

Many businesses will already be making or considering changes in recognition of changing public expectations and the risks involved. But changes like this will have a significant impact on the bottom line in this sector of the market where margins are very tight. The consultation invites responses by 29 March 2019.

Separately, businesses in Scotland are waiting to hear the results of a consultation which closed late last year on a deposit return scheme for drinks containers. The Scottish government wants to promote recycling of drinks containers. This raises many issues for producers and promoters of the scheme such as: will producers need to change the materials they use for their packaging to enable recycling; are there feasible alternatives and at what cost; what recycling capacity exists or may be needed to run such a scheme; what level of deposit will be enough to encourage people to return their containers for recycling; and will proposals by the Scottish government tie in with wider UK moves in this area.

Another consultation by the Scottish government that closed earlier this month seeks views on restricting the promotion and marketing of food and drink high in fat, sugar or salt. We expect to hear the results of that in 2019.  

Whilst these consultations have not yet produced concrete recommendations, changes in all these areas will come in some shape or form. They may provide businesses with a better guide on what to prepare for than the current discussions in Westminster. 

Joanna Fulton, Partner, Burness Paull 

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