A move to enshrine high food and drink standards in the UK’s Agriculture Bill failed this week. However, the fact such an amendment was brought should have indicated to the government how deeply “unwise” and “unpopular” relaxing standards would be, according to one expert.
An amendment to the bill from Neil Parish, the chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, proposed to ensure agriculture imports adhered to UK animal health and welfare, environmental, and food safety standards. It was defeated by 277 votes to 328.
Environment minister Victoria Prentis tried to reassure the Commons that despite the amendment’s defeat, all food coming into the country would still have to meet existing import requirements. Prentis added that at the end of the Brexit transition period, the Withdrawal Act will convert all EU standards into domestic law, which will include a ban on hormone treated beef, and chlorinated chicken.
Erik Millstone, professor of science policy at the University of Sussex, and part of the Food Research Collaboration, said: “I was pleasantly surprised that the chair of the Commons environment select committee took the stand that he did.
“But then I was disappointed by the small number of MPs from the governing party willing to stand up to the whips.
“I think this is a warning to the government, reminding them that allowing the import of foods that don’t meet UK current standards will be hugely unpopular and they would pay a very high political price for doing so. But that doesn't guarantee they won't do anything stupid.”
On Prentis’s reassurances, Millstone said, “different ministers say different things on different occasions. And apparently governments and ministers don't always keep their word”.
Millstone added that the US has just revealed plans to relax even further its “already relaxed” controls on GM foods. He added: “The adverse public reaction to the importation of GM foods in the US that don’t meet current UK standards would be very unwise and very unpopular.”