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Ross Finnie welcomes delegates to the Global Conference for Food Safety Regulation and Sustainability

Speech by Ross Finnie, Chair of Food Standards Scotland, to welcome delegates to the Global Conference for Food Safety Regulation and Sustainability. The conference took palce on 10 November, and was timed to coincide with COP26.

Ross Finnie chair of Food Standards Scotland"Good morning, and a very warm welcome to everyone, to this joint Food Standards Agency and Food Standards Scotland Global Conference for Food Safety Regulation and Sustainability.

Timed to coincide with COP26 this takes me back to 2006 when I was Scotland’s Minister for the Environment and we had launched two important policy documents: Scotland’s Climate Change Programme; and Scotland’s Sustainable Development Strategy. Of greater international significance, that was also the Year when former American Vice President Al Gore launched his book “An inconvenient Truth – The planetary emergency of global warming and what we can do about it”

Yes, fifteen years ago, Al Gore was effectively describing it as a clima`te emergency and in 2021 it is the by-line for COP26. It is real and it is affecting all of us. We can look around the UK and then around the globe and we will find examples of more extreme weather events including gales, flooding and forest fires wreaking havoc across communities.

The science tells us there are tangible actions which can and must be taken now to prevent irreversible consequences. We also know only too well that independent scientific advice is not always enough to effect regulatory or behavioural change. There has to be support, both at a political and societal level that turns what was considered normal, for example travelling everywhere by private car or sending all household waste to landfill, into something that is simply socially unacceptable. That change in mind-set then drives improvements at a personal and societal level – reducing our overall consumption and beginning to make our lifestyle more sustainable.

We know that to tackle the climate emergency we have to examine critically every aspect of the way we live and that includes the way we produce and process food, the way it is distributed the wholesale and retail operations, our eating habits and how we deal with waste at the end of the food chain. Such a critical examination will require far greater action – with cooperation across international boundaries - to share solutions and bring about change. Experience tells us, however, that we need the law and the public to be on the same side for that change to happen.

FSS and FSA share the view that we need to influence the regulatory architecture that makes safe, healthy and sustainable food outcomes the norm both across the UK, and further afield. As the lead authorities on food standards and food safety we recognise this will only be achieved by close collaboration between the respective bodies. FSS also recognises that with Scotland being a relatively small country, it is vital that we seek out like minds, try to gain traction by encouraging others to join in pursuit of a common goal. 

FSS published our Strategy to 2026 only a few months ago. In it, we articulated our vision of a healthy and sustainable food environment that benefits and protects the health and well-being of everyone. For FSS, our remit covers only Scotland, but it is a vision, we like to believe  will be widely shared, aiming towards a common destination.

We can reach that destination by collaborating across remits and geographical boundaries; using our evidence base and scientific expertise to influence standards set at an international level as well as being genuinely open to innovation whether it comes from the public, business, academia, or indeed regulators around the globe. 

At today’s conference, these are the voices  we want to hear from. We value the contributions and challenges which these varying perspectives bring. Given the enormity of the challenges we face, we understand there must be constant dialogue and continuous learning – and today offers an opportunity to begin that dialogue  which we hope will help guide our thinking on how to embed sustainability up and down the food chain.

Today’s agenda is split across two core themes. This morning’s theme will focus on the role of regulators in the sustainability landscape and the role that technology can play.

As a regulator, FSS is involved in a number of initiatives which aim to improve the sustainability of our food and feed; considering the use of surplus foods in animal feed;  working with the Scottish Government on developments in insect farming and the use of insects in animal feed; reducing the need to import feedstuff from overseas; to working with Zero Waste Scotland on initiatives to reduce food waste, building to a Food Waste Action Week in 2022.

We are also working to support changes to food labelling and packaging to reduce plastic waste without compromising either the clarity of the labelling or the safety of the food.  

As an organisation, we are making use of technology to reduce our own carbon footprint, with remote working cutting a significant number of journeys to engage with stakeholders. We are also supporting our partners in their drive to use technology to deliver their regulatory work. During the past 18 months, pandemic restrictions have allowed Scottish Local Authorities to trial the use of technology to undertake virtual food law interventions thus allowing inspections and follow up issues to be addressed without the need for on-site presence. FSS will assist this work through a pilot which will build towards formalising the use of remote intervention.

These actions are making useful contributions, but we know we need to work harder and faster. We also want to hear from businesses – about what you need from us  to take forward a more sustainable approach to the regulation of food production and supply.

I emphasise how important this agenda is to us. We in FSS do not have powers to change regulation – we advise Ministers and, in the present circumstances,  the chances of us successfully persuading Ministers to make change will be immeasurably improved if we can demonstrate that not only is the measure evidence based, sustainability has been factored in.

We talk in regulatory terms about a Farm to Fork model – we must think of sustainability in the same way. Shortening food supply chains, choosing food in season where possible, encouraging the consumption of more locally grown fruit and vegetables, eliminating excess packaging and waste within the system, and ensuring that we eat a healthy and balanced diet are all likely to contribute to improved environmental outcomes. We want to do this while supporting our rural businesses and considering what fiscal levers could help influence consumer behaviour.

This will bring a number of challenging issues to the fore – we must reflect on whether an increased risk of cross-contamination is the acceptable price to pay in achieving an overall reduction in packaging and waste, or whether remote auditing and monitoring of food processing facilities is as robust as in-person inspection. I remain confident, however, that our science and evidence led approach will inform and support us in making these difficult calls.

We understand that we do not have all the answers to the challenges facing us as the primary regulator of food and feed safety and standards in Scotland. But events such as this, and the wider COP26 taking place around us, are opportunities to learn, to grow, to share knowledge and experience with those who are further ahead in their sustainability journey.

In the afternoon, we look in more detail at climate change, diet, and the environment and FSA Chair Susan Jebb will introduce that session.

Some might say that our food culture here in the UK part of the problem. Our consumption of sugar, salt and fat are too high, and we must consider not just the sustainability of the food we eat, but the wider system consequences of failing to tackle poor diet. Increased health problems resulting from diet make our population less productive and add to the burden on essential services. This, in itself, is unsustainable and the trajectory of obesity and overweight must be reversed. For many years now, FSS and FSA have promoted the Eat Well guide – which research by the Carbon Trust indicates has a 32% lower environmental footprint than the current national diet. If everyone switched to eating according to the guide, their personal carbon footprint would be measurably lower and they would be eating a healthier, more balanced diet.

The composition of our diet and levels of meat consumption are very much in the public eye in terms of their greenhouse gas contributions. We must consider what new consumer trends tell us about the future of feed and food, and what balance is to be struck between entirely voluntary initiatives and regulation when it comes to diet.

There are myriad issues to consider. Before we all rush to turn our fresh ingredients into a wholesome meal, like for example, is cooking at home more or less carbon intensive than centralised kitchens putting single portions into plastic tubs? Some actions may feel instinctively good for us and the planet but again we need to return to the science and evidence and remain dispassionate in our advice. 

We want to see innovation reduce carbon footprints. We hope that businesses here today will help us understand the barriers in food and feed regulation and production at present and what we, as regulators, can do to support innovation rather than block it – while bearing in mind our primary responsibility to consumer safety.

FSS is keen to play an active part in helping Scotland achieve its net zero goals. We have a lot to learn, but we are hopeful that the conversations started today will help us on our journey to be an enabling force, with sustainability embedded in all the work we do.

Thank you all for attending, I look forward to you engaging and participating in what promises to be an interesting and stimulating day."

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Our strategy: 2021 to 2026

We focus on the issues that matter most to people in Scotland, including renewed emphasis on improving the Scottish diet and associated negative health consequences.