UK pledges to protect food standards during trade talks but public concern remains high

6 Aug 2020

British public concerns over lowering food safety standards continue to court US trade remain steadfast as the UK and US governments gear up for the next round of scheduled negotiations later this month.

The second round of negotiations of the UK-US Free Trade Agreement ended on 26 June 2020 with the UK government saying they were “positive and constructive”,

UK pledges to protect food standards during trade talks but public concern remains high

The British trade minister, Liz Truss, said there was no set deadline for the agreement and the government remained clear on not compromising on the UK’s high environmental protection, animal welfare and food safety standards.

The next round of talks is scheduled for the end of this month.

Public opposition

Food safety and animal welfare standards have become a thorny issue during the negotiations.

UK consumer rights association Which? questioned a demographically representative sample of more than 2,000 members of the public in June and found that more than eight in 10 (86%) were concerned that a trade deal between the UK and US would weaken food standards in Britain.

More than nine in 10 (95%) said it was important for the UK to maintain existing food standards while almost three-quarters (74%) said they were opposed to importing food produced using methods banned in the UK, such as chlorine-washed chicken, meat from animals treated with growth hormones or antibiotics and many pesticides. This was consistent across all socio-economic groups.

“The findings dispel the myth that there is an appetite in the UK for foods produced to lower standards than our own,” said the consumer rights group, which first surveyed UK consumers on this topic over two years ago and found that public opinion has been consistent since then.

‘Highly politically controversial’

International law firm Norton Rose Fulbright said any lowering of UK food standards to accommodate US food exports would be “highly politically controversial”.

“The US agricultural lobby is highly influential and will push for maximum access to the UK market for US food products, which may prompt the US government to demand [some level of regulatory alignment].

However, this would likely generate strong opposition among the British public and in parliament during the ratification of the deal, Norton Rose Fulbright said.

“It may therefore be a better use of negotiating time for the US government to ensure that barriers preventing US farmers from exporting food products that adhere to UK standards (e.g. non-hormone treated meat) are removed, thereby enabling US farmers to gain market share in the UK by developing separate production lines,” it said.

Food industry players pledge to stick to current standards

As concerns over watered down food standards continue to make headlines, some British retailers have made public commitments to stick to current standards.

The executive director of Waitrose supermarket, James Bailey, said the chain encouraged the government to include legislative provisions that would safeguard standards while allowing it to conduct trade negotiations in a flexible and meaningful way.

“It would be simply wrong to maintain high standards at home yet import food from overseas that has been produced to lower standards. We would be closing our eyes to a problem that exists in another part of the world and to animals who are out of our sight and our minds,” he said.

The UK’s National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has launched a petition urging the government to ensure future trade deals do not lead to increased food imports that would be illegal to produce in Britain has received more than 1 million signatures.

Trade deal trade-offs

Since voting to leave the European Union in 2016, the UK finds itself negotiating trade deals with both the US and the EU.

Since certain US demands are likely to clash with EU regulations, the UK faces a “painful trade-off” and will have to choose between closer economic ties to either the EU or US, warned the authors of a study, Post-Brexit trade survival: Looking beyond the European Union.

The EU is already the UK’s biggest trade partner and many of their food and agricultural policies are aligned. This means the UK stands to suffer more by losing access to EU markets than from gaining access to the US, the researchers argued.

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