Compassion in World Farming sent a letter, backed by CIEH, Sustain, National Farmers Union (NFU), Friends of the Earth and others, to the big nine retailers asking them to back UK standards.
An NFU petition on the same issue hit a million signatures last week. This was supported by The School Dinners ambassador and chef Jamie Oliver and the Mail on Sunday.
James Bailey, appointed at the end of April, has written a letter in the Waitrose customer magazine Weekend pledging support and committing to maintaining high standards.
He wrote: “Whatever happens, let me give you our commitment. We promise we will never sell any Waitrose product that does not meet our own high standards.
“This promise is regardless of the outcome of any trade deal. It is our promise to you. It is our promise to our farmers. It is our promise to the nation.”
While recognising that securing new trade deals is a difficult task, Bailey added: “At the same time, we must point out that any regression from the standards we have pioneered for the last 30 years, both as a business and as a country, would be an unacceptable backwards step.
“It would be simply wrong to maintain high standards at home yet import food from overseas that has been produced to lower standards. We would be closing our eyes to a problem that exists in another part of the world and to animals who are out of our sight and our minds. I feel sure customers will share our view.”
The new executive director also rebutted the argument that lower standards could mean cheaper food for customers, and it boiled down to choice. He said: “Some supporters of American farming systems have argued that British consumers should be able to decide for themselves whether they’d like to buy ‘cheaper’ produce at the cost of lower standards.
“This, of course, assumes the British public are motivated either by price or by their values, when in fact, I know they expect food businesses to deliver on both simultaneously – no matter what their budget is.”
The Guardian reported that Tesco has ruled out selling chlorinated chicken from the US and said while it will look for opportunities, “what we don’t do is give up our standards”. Tesco customer research found shoppers didn’t want to bring back old farming and processing techniques, abandoned because of animal welfare and food standards concerns.
Morrisons told the newspaper that it only sold fresh meat from the UK and if a decision was needed to change this it would consult its customers. Sainsbury’s said it remained “committed to offering our customers the best possible choice, quality and value while continuing to uphold our high standards”.