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15 Jun 2020

Basic food standards under threat from US trade deal

Government backtracks on legal protection for safety and animal welfare

Hormone-treated beef, pigs and chlorinated chicken could soon be on the menu and on supermarket shelves.

The trade agenda is moving at pace - talks with the US and Japan are underway, while negotiations with Australia and New Zealand are right around the corner too.

The US trade talks are the most advanced and today, the government begins its second round of negotiations with the US.

Everything's on the table - including our food. Up until now, the government has said it will uphold our food safety and animal welfare standards. But this week, it started to backtrack on this.

In addition, legal protections for food standards have not been included in the Agriculture Bill or the Trade Bill, both of which are currently being debated by lawmakers and could have given consumers reassurance that the government could not trade away food safety and quality in the heat of the trade talks.

It's got farmers up in arms, with Jamie Oliver backing a campaign by the National Farmers Union to uphold standards in law.

The celebrity chef told his Instagram followers that 'It's really important - probably the most important thing I've ever done. We don't want people's word - we want standards and structures and law to maintain what we've worked hard for.'

Lower standards are a problem for consumers - even if you're prepared to pay more for better food. Here's why.

Not just chlorinated chicken

British food standards are amongst the highest in the world, and for good reason, as our video explains:

Whether you remember Edwina Currie's warning about salmonella in eggs, mad cow disease in beef (BSE), or more recently, the horsemeat scandal, it's been a long process of improvement.

Hormone-treated beef and chlorine-washing chicken (which makes up for poor hygiene standards) are currently banned in the UK. Both are legal in the US. And the UK's other priority trade partners also use some of these practices.

US farmers can also use types and quantities of pesticides that have been long banned or more tightly restricted in the UK.

Lower standards means food can be cheaper, but at a cost. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year about one in six Americans (around 50 million people) get sick from the food they eat. In the UK, the figure is around one in 28, according to the Food Standards Agency's latest estimates, for 2018.

Traffic-light labelling for fat, salt and sugar could also be on the agenda of US negotiators, judging by how the US has approached other recent trade deals.

Ignoring popular opinion

In 2018 and 2019 we asked thousands of UK adults what they thought about food standards and labelling:

  • 93% Food standards should be maintained after Brexit
  • 72% Food with lower standards shouldn't be available at all
  • 79% Uncomfortable eating beef produced using growth hormones
  • 72% Concerned about eating chicken treated with chlorine

Chlorinated 'chicken sounds terrible commented one respondent from the North West. 'Chlorine belongs in the swimming pool and not in our food.'

85% also thought that traffic light labelling should be mandatory.

In February 2019, then-environment secretary Michael Gove pledged that British food standards would not be lowered 'in pursuit of trade deals'.

The government included upholding the UK's high domestic standards on food safety and animal welfare among its negotiating objectives.

But ministerial statements around upholding standards have been increasingly varied in recent weeks and there have been reports the government is considering using tariffs to try to price goods of a lower standard out of the market instead.

This has led to confusion over what the government's approach to standards is, and confirms that, without being bound to these standards, our food is just another bargaining chip.

Why a 'made in' label isn't enough

Amid criticism of the government's approach, Penny Mourdant, the Cabinet Office Minister suggested that 'we should be trusting the consumer' on whether they buy US products.

But it's not as simple as sticking a label on food.

For a start, not all food we eat is labelled. It'll be impossible to know if the food you're eating in a restaurant, takeaway or canteen contains lower-quality ingredients produced using methods you would usually avoid.

It will also be difficult to give people clear information about ingredients used in highly processed foods - whether on sale in supermarkets, restaurants or takeaways.

Secondly, labelling itself is also likely to be contested, including country of origin labelling.

The US negotiating objectives for the trade deal also include the removal of 'unjustified commercial requirements (including unjustified labelling) that affects new technologies'.

Can't we just raise tariffs?

The UK could permit the import of food with lower standards but increase tariffs on such food, but this would only provide short-term protection to UK farmers against being undercut by cheaper imports.

It doesn't protect consumers from the import of these products.

This could also set a precedent for negotiations with other countries - which could include Australia and New Zealand but also a much wider range of countries whose food standards also differ to the UK's.

Save our food standards

With UK negotiations with the US and Japan having already begun, and more talks around the corner with other countries, time is running out to make food standards non-negotiable.

We need politicians to include these standards in the Agriculture Bill and the coming Trade Bill.

You can find out more about our campaign here and sign our petition.

If you're on Twitter, tweet your support for UK food standards with the hashtag #SaveFoodStandards.