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.”
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.”