UK’s food standards will not be lowered for US trade talks, Minister insists
The UK’s Environment Secretary has defended the Government’s refusal to protect food standards in law and insisted a “prohibition” on chlorinated chicken or hormone-treated beef would not change.
On Monday, MPs voted to overturn measures aimed at protecting UK food standards in future trade deals.
The House of Lords amendment to the Agriculture Bill would have required agricultural and food imports to meet domestic standards but it was rejected by 332 votes to 279, despite 14 Tory rebels supporting the clause.
Conservative Environment Secretary George Eustice said the legal protection “wasn’t necessary” and the Government had given assurances to the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) that it would “protect and uphold our standards”.
Mr Eustice said: “We will be maintaining food standards – it’s a manifesto commitment.
“We’ve already got legislative processes that protect those standards and so this clause wasn’t necessary to protect those standards.”
Speaking on BBC Good Morning Scotland he continued: “We already have a prohibition of the sale of things like chlorine-washed chicken or hormones in beef and that’s not going to change.”
He added: “We care deeply about animal welfare as well, so we’re clear that we will use tariff policy to ensure that we effectively maintain a tariff barrier against producers who are not matching our standards.”
Asked if the UK Government would walk away from trade talks if the US insisted on lower standards of food imports, Mr Eustice said: “I don’t think they will jeopardise a trade agreement.
“At the end of the day, the UK is the third-largest market in the world for food measured by import value – we come only after China and Japan.
“The US and many others would like to have access to our market, and the general rule here is if you want access to someone else’s market, then you should abide by the customs and rules of the market that you seek access to, and that’s what we’ll be explaining.”
He added: “In any negotiation, you have to be very clear about your mandate and stick to your red lines, and so in our approach to all of these trade agreements maintaining animal welfare standards is right up there. It’s one of our key things that we’re aiming to do.”
Mr Eustice explained that MPs have the power to reject a trade agreement during the ratification process and suggested including protections in the Agriculture Bill could “derail” plans to roll over trade agreements on existing EU terms.
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross was one of 14 Conservatives – and the only Scottish Tory – who voted against the Government to support the legal protections.
Former environment secretary Theresa Villiers also rebelled, but Mr Eustice said they would not have the whip removed over the “perfectly normal” difference of opinion and for voting with “their own personal conscience”.
I think we need to set down a clear marker on this issue for any post-Brexit trade deals
Commenting on his decision to rebel, Mr Ross said including the protections in law would have been “a firm, definitive assurance to every farmer across Scotland and the UK”.
He said: “I supported this amendment to protect our domestic producers by ensuring food imports comply with those high food and animal welfare standards.
“I think we need to set down a clear marker on this issue for any post-Brexit trade deals.
“Many farmers are concerned at the prospect of imported food produced to lower standards appearing on supermarket shelves across the UK.
“The Conservative manifesto pledged to protect these standards, but I felt adding this clause would have provided further reassurance that our producers’ world-beating standards would not be compromised.”
Mr Eustice also said he understood why the NFU were opposed to the Government’s rejection of legal protection and said: “I can understand that farmers will be apprehensive.
“This is a time of change as we leave the European Union and start to have new trade agreements with other parts of the world.
“I can understand that apprehension, but we’ve got a very clear stance that we set out and that we’ve explained to the NFU that will protect and uphold our standards and will also protect our sensitive sectors like beef and sheep.”