We use cookies to allow us and selected partners to improve your experience and our advertising. By continuing to browse you consent to our use of cookies. You can understand more and change your cookies preferences here.


When you click on a retailer link on our site, we may earn affiliate commission to help fund our not-for-profit mission.Find out more.

25 Jun 2020

Why labels won't protect UK food standards from a US trade deal

Strong public opposition to lowering of safety or animal welfare
British beef

The UK's world-leading food standards could be compromised under a UK-US trade deal, with consumers unable to make meaningful choices about what they eat.

New research by Which? shows that consumers are against lower standard food, even if labelled.

As we reported last week, a UK-US trade deal could see hormone-treated beef, pigs and chlorinated chicken - practices currently banned in the UK - be imported or produced here.

The government had promised to uphold food standards but has recently begun to backtrack.Proponents of lowering food standards claim shoppers can make informed decisions.

When the debate around chlorinated chicken first began, in 2017, Sonny Perdue, the US secretary of agriculture, told Radio 4; 'If the consumer doesn't want them that way, they won't buy them'.

Earlier this month, Cabinet Office Minister Penny Mourdant told concerned MPs 'we should be trusting the consumer' over food standards.

But new research shows consumers don't agree.

Three fifths of people say food produced to lower standards should not be on sale regardless of labelling, a Which? survey of 2,078 adults in June found.

Two-thirds were concerned about lower-quality food being sold in schools and hospitals.

Labelling could also be open to challenge as part of the trade deal, as the US takes a different approach to labelling of production methods, and has previously challenged country of origin labelling.

Why labels won't work

Not everything is labelled. Food sold in schools, hospitals, canteens, restaurants and takeaways need not be labelled.

It can also be difficult to find out the ingredients used in pre-prepared food.

Using labels to inform consumers about production methods or the origin of ingredients - rather than simply banning products that don't meet current UK standards - would require a huge expansion of labelling.

In contrast, the US wants labelling to be reduced.

US government negotiating objectives, published last year, called for 'new and enforceable rules to eliminate unjustified trade restrictions or unjustified commercial requirements (including unjustified labeling) that affect new technologies.'

In other trade deals with Canada and Mexico the US has pushed for a reduction in labelling.

A coalition of academics and non-governmental organisations has written to supermarkets calling for them not to sell lower-quality US food products.

The letter notes: 'in our view country of origin labelling would not address our above concerns as it would not be sufficient to prevent the undermining of UK farmers or the lowering of UK standards.'

Strong public opposition

Our survey in June found clear opposition to any lowering of food standards, regardless of labelling:

  • 74% -  Food produced in countries with lower standards shouldn't be available in the UK 
  • 63% -  Chlorine-washed chicken should not be on sale in supermarkets, even if labelled (61% for hormone-treated beef) 
  • 65% -  Very concerned about food produced using these methods being sold in hospitals 
  • 89% -  Restaurants, cafes and takeaways should let consumers know if food has been produced using these methods

Survey of 2078 UK adults online between the 15 and 16 June 2020. Data weighted to be demographically representative of the UK population.  

Defenders of UK food standards have been dubbed 'Waitrose protectionists' by a senior Tory quoted in The Spectator.

But our survey found people from lower socio-economic backgrounds were less likely than those from higher socio-economic households to believe food produced to lower standards should be available in the UK.

Unlike labels, food standards protect everyone - not just those who can afford to shop at Waitrose.

Health warnings under threat

Leaving the EU has given the UK a major opportunity to improve the nutrition labelling of food.

Some EU countries had blocked the expansion of traffic light labelling, which gives consumers a clear view of the fat, sugar and salt in food. Outside of the EU, the UK could strengthen such labelling, to help address our obesity crisis.
Traffic light labelling could be under threat

Unfortunately, the US regards such labels as a barrier to trade.

In previous negotiations with Canada and Mexico, the US initially tried to include provisions that would have limited nutrition labels on the front of packaging.

Laws not labels

Given the shortcomings of food labelling, Which? believes consumers are best protected by the UK's existing world-leading food standards.

Time is running out to save those standards, with further trade negotiations soon to begin with Australia.

That's why we're making two demands:

  • The government commit to upholding our food standards and enshrine this in law through the Agriculture Bill or Trade Bill.

  • The government signal to all future trading partners that the UK is seeking to champion high-quality and high standards food around the globe, and not accept any deals that would weaken them.

By adding your name to our petition, you can help us push lawmakers to stand up for consumers. Over 190,000 people have signed it in little over a week, making it one of our fastest growing campaigns ever.

Signing up will also mean you receive the latest updates from the campaign.

You can also tweet your local MP and International Trade Secretary Liz Truss using the hashtag #SaveFoodStandards.