CHAPTER ONE – INTRODUCTION
“It is highly unlikely that people can contract Covid-19 from food or food packaging” (WHO/FAO Interim Guidance 7th April 2020).
If so, what is the point of a book on Covid-19 and the law relating to food?
The answer probably lies in the fact that there has been a major impact on food supply chains and on the ability of people to access food. This has led to significant challenges for food business operators and consumers alike.
The human cost of the pandemic, as well as the economic consequences cannot and should not be ignored or forgotten.
A significant number of people have become ill and many have died. The numbers continue to rise and are publicly shared by way of daily briefings. The human impact of Covid-19 must drive, educate, guide and inform how each of us takes responsibility for the protection of our own health and that of others.
What then are some of the implications of Covid-19 for food, food supply and food law? They are many and varied but the following are some that come to mind;
Restrictions on travel and the movement of people and goods;
Closure of certain food businesses (temporary and permanent);
Limiting the number of customers and restricting the consumer experience (social/physical distancing; one customer out, one customer in, no browsing, use of face coverings and sanitisers for hands and trollies);
Threats to food safety, quality and hygiene;
Consumer information (e.g. misrepresentation);
Consumers looking to food to prevent or cure Covid-19;
Potential for an increase in criminal activity;
Reduction in consumer trust;
Commercial, insurance and contractual issues;
Increase in e-commerce/distance selling;
Loss of employment (temporary and permanent);
Severe economic conditions (globally, regionally, nationally and locally);
This book cannot hope to cover all these issues and apologies are made in advance if your particular area of interest is not fully covered.
However, the intention is to provide information on a broad range of topics which it is hoped will be beneficial to all readers whether directly or indirectly.
The food sector must fully re-open as soon as possible but only if this can be done safely and in a way that renders the premises Covid-secure.
In this book I refer to businesses being Covid-secure and not Covid-safe or Covid-free as I believe this better reflects the reality.
Businesses must also be able to operate in a commercially viable way and the tension between health and economic factors is starting to take centre stage.
However, the priority must always be that safety comes before profit or any financial consideration. This means the safety of consumers, staff and food.
Two examples of the tensions created by Covid-19 are the physical distancing of 2 metres and the wearing of face masks or face covers.
Even as I write this book there are indications that that official guidance will reduce the distance to 1 metre in some settings and that there is increased pressure to wear face coverings when shopping or travelling on buses, trains, planes and the like.
Food businesses need to comply with their food, Covid-19 and health and safety obligations. In order to respond appropriately they need to understand the basic science behind Covid-19; what is it, how is it spread and how to protect against it.
The law, guidance and advice about Covid-19 and the global, regional, national, and local response to it is a rapidly developing area.
The re-opening of some food businesses is moving forward, and in some respects ahead of schedule, but there are still significant uncertainties about how they will operate in practice.
Some aspects of this book will probably be out of date by the time it is published or very soon after. For this reason, I have tried to approach the subject-matter from a general perspective having regard to basic principles. In this way it is hoped that the book remains relevant despite the ever-changing landscape.
The basic issues relating to Covid-19 raised in this book apply equally to the UK and Ireland, even if the law and guidance might differ in the detail.
A brief word about the UK. England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have their own national food laws and their responses to Covid-19 have not always been the same.
In an attempt to keep references to legal provisions to a minimum, I have not always cited the individual laws of each jurisdiction. Where necessary, for example to make a comparison with the law in Ireland, I have made reference to one or more UK laws.
Another reason for not dwelling too much on domestic law is that this book is intended to be a guide and not a textbook. In most cases a reference to the EU law is sufficient and for this purpose I treat the UK as part of the EU.
I have not touched on the implications of Covid-19 on Brexit and food law. That might be for another publication.
Finally, the book has at its core the follow principles of food law:
1) A high level of protection of human life and health;
2) The protection of consumers’ interests, including fair practices in food trade, taking account of, where appropriate, the protection of animal health and welfare, plant health and the environment; and
3) The free movement in the Community of food and feed manufactured or marketed (which has been adversely affected by the closure of many country borders although these restrictions are now easing).
This book may be read in conjunction with “A Practical Guide to the Law Relating to Food” also written by me and published by Law Brief Publishing.