Richard Short is the Deputy Director of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists, and was Parliamentary Candidate for Warrington North in 2015.
When Boris Johnson held aloft his smoked vacuum-packed Manx kipper, and blamed EU bureaucrats for the producer having to increase their costs with ‘ice pillows’, he was lambasted by the EU Commission, and by his opponents and other commentators, who claimed that temperature control requirements are a UK law and nothing to do with the EU. But he was right and they were wrong. To understand why, one must grasp the context.
Kippers are a perishable food. They can go off, and must be properly handled to ensure that they don’t make anyone eating them sick and ill. Perishable food can be preserved by age-old methods, such as smoking; by established methods like refrigeration; by more recent ones, such as vacuum packing – or by a combination of them, and by other techniques.
True, UK law specifies exact temperatures and makes some reference to mail order food. But the root of these rules is EU Regulation 852/2004, which contains a whole lot more – and Johnson is right to be profiling it.
It is this regulation which places requirements on all food businesses, including kipper sellers, to have a documented food safety management system based on the ‘rules of HACCP’ (Hazard analysis critical control point). Within these rules are seven principles and all seven must, by law, be implemented with in order to comply with EU regulations on food hygiene.
It is this process, imposed as a legal requirement directly from Brussels, which is most likely to have led the kipper producer down the path to adding an ice pillow to his consignments. Incidentally, the Isle of Man has always followed UK law almost as a point of principle. So when the UK implements EU law, the Isle of Man follows suit by means of their own Act of Tynwald.
Johnson was legitimately questioning the EU’s right to impose and micromanage how industries go about their business. Before the highly codified and prescriptive EU regulations began their mission creep into food safety legislation, the UK regulators operated under broader, simpler regulations and the principle of due diligence to maintain and raise standards.
Due diligence, a common law principle, is a powerful, yet non-prescriptive, regulatory tool. The food industry was free to devise systems and procedures, methods and processes that suited their business which could be as complex or as simple as required, as long as they ultimately resulted in safe food.
A plethora of case law amassed over the years which refined the very meaning of due diligence into common sense regulation, understood by business and regulator. Being a Common Law jurisdiction, due diligence is still written into some UK food legislation. Common Law, however, is an alien concept to European Law, which is based on code and prescription – exactly the type of code and prescription which rightly got Boris so riled.
Ironically, HACCP was borne out of the Apollo space programme as a measure of ultimate due diligence. NASA engineers applied Zero Defect Engineering to everything, for obvious reasons. This concept also applied to Neil Armstrong’s food as much as it did the lunar modules. NASA insisted on the food being produced with a 100 per cent guarantee that it would be safe – and so came up with Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point, HACCP.
This became an international standard as guidelines for any food business and, clearly, is a good idea in some circumstances. But is is very bureaucratic, highly technical and requires a level of expertise to apply. Instead of having it in the box as recommended good practice, the EU decided it would be applicable to all EU food businesses on pain of legal sanction. HACCP may be perfect for rocket scientists. But it is a little over the top for a Manx kipper business.