A new report published on November 27th has warned that the British Government has already weakened protections around food imports and is failing to consider the impact of trade on public health, animal welfare and the environment with adequate rigour or transparency.
The Safeguarding Standards report from the Future British Standards Coalition (FBSC) has found that UK ministers have given themselves significant powers to change the rules on food imports without parliamentary votes or proper scrutiny.
It also says that rules governing the use of hormones and food additives are now easier to change, while standards on the use of antibiotics in farming have already been deleted.
Kath Dalmeny, chair of the Future British Standards Coalition, said: “UK consumers have consistently rejected the prospect of poorly produced food that hurts people, the planet and animals.
“The Government needs to show the public it is listening and taking advice from a wide range of experts.
“It should start by appointing a Trade and Agriculture Commission that reflects a proper range of expertise and ditching this behind closed doors approach to negotiating trade deals.”
The PSC100 Group, an umbrella lobbying body for public sector catering, was represented on the coalition which produced the report.
PSC100 chair Andy Jones said: “It does worry me what standards we could end up. It is important the public sector is at the forefront of ensuring how the government can maintain our food, animal welfare and environmental standards.
“We know from past experience we could be pushed towards buying food the Government has signed up to in any trade agreements. If that agreement is for food that falls short of our stringent regulations then we risk being made to use products that are sub-standard and fail to meet our sustainability targets.
“This report will assist us in not only holding the Government to account, because despite assurances we still have not seen any legislation that will protect our current high standards.”
With the government resisting strong public pressure to commit in law to maintaining import standards, fears have persisted that lower standard food could in the future undermine UK farmers and find its way into schools, hospitals and care homes.
The FBSC points to concern over the farming production methods used in some of the countries with whom the UK is negotiating trade deals.
In 2018 outbreak of super-resistant salmonella in the United States was linked to the overuse of the antibiotic azithromycin in cattle, while Australia uses 71 more pesticides with direct links to long term health damage, including birth defects, cancer and hormonal disruption, than the UK.
The report argues that maintaining high import standards would enable the UK government to build new markets for domestic farmers, potentially drive up international standards and help countries in the Global South increase exports while improving environmental conditions and animal welfare.
At the start of November, the UK government sought to allay fears around food imports: it pledged to make its new advisory Trade and Agriculture Commission (TAC) a statutory body for at least three years, and committed to issuing a report to parliament on each new trade deal it negotiates.
Dalmeny said that while the FBSC welcomed an extended commission, it did not believe the current membership of the TAC – focused on farming and business – matches the government’s original pledge to ‘ensure the voices of the public … are heard,.
Similarly, she added, the secretary of state will get to choose who is consulted on the formation of the reports to parliament, and that MPs would still only be able to postpone rather than reject trade deals based on their findings.
“In the absence of commitments to high food import standards in primary legislation, we urge ministers to widen the TAC’s expertise and remit.
“And we call on ministers to ensure the body includes representatives on public health, the environment, animal welfare and consumer protection to provide missing expertise, and to confirm how it will interact with parliament, government agencies and trade negotiators.
“We also urge ministers to improve scrutiny over trade deals.”
George Dunn, chief executive of the Tenant Farmers Association, another coalition member, added: "The unity of voice across farming, environmental, animal welfare and public health groups underlines the imperative that the UK Government doesn't drop the ball in reaching trade agreements which undermine domestic food production standards.
“Extending the tenure of the Trade and Agriculture Commission will mean nothing if it is toothless, side-lined and ignored. Now is the time for the Government to show that it is indeed determined to deliver its General Election Manifesto commitment to protect standards in trade.”
The Future British Standards Coalition (FBSC) was set up in September 2020 to consider the government’s approach to food standards in trade, following concerns that the new Trade and Agriculture Commission did not represent a full range of public interests.
Greener UK and Sustain sought to form a panel with expertise on animal welfare, biodiversity, climate change, public health, consumer protection, farming and trade law. The FBSC panellists are: trade academic Dr Emily Lydgate, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, Baroness Boycott, and representatives from the RSPCA, Faculty of Public Health, Pesticide Action Network UK, Tenant Farmers Association, Landworkers’ Alliance, WWF, PSC100 group, and Compassion in World Farming.
1.The greatest protection remains a commitment in primary legislation not to lower food, environmental and animal welfare standards in the UK – and a commitment not to import food produced to lower standards than these.
2. If the government is not going to legislate, scrutiny over the development of trade policy and trade agreements – with the assistance of full government impact assessments – becomes ever more important. It is absolutely vital that the newly extended Trade and Agriculture Commission (TAC) is given the necessary access, powers and resources to do its job.
3. Ministers should champion high standards and defend them at the WTO.
4. The government should develop a new and publicly available terms of reference for the Food Standards Agency and all other relevant regulators and enforcement bodies, clarifying how these bodies will be resourced and what genuine influence they can have over trade.
5. If used, tariff measures should be used to drive up import standards towards UK production standards. They are not an effective replacement for existing bans or restrictions.