Protecting our food standards – the Agriculture Bill and beyond

25 August 2020, Ellie Whitlock, Policy and Public Affairs Executive, CIEH

Cows in a field

Government ministers have repeatedly promised that the UK’s high food safety, animal welfare and environmental standards will not be compromised in future trade deals.

But as negotiations with the US and other countries progress, recent developments have hinted the UK Government may be starting to back track on this commitment.

In May this year, key amendments to the Agriculture Bill that would have protected UK standards in primary legislation were rejected by the Government. A series of media reports have since suggested the Government is considering a 'dual tariff' approach to food standards, which would mean that food products with lower standards would be allowed into the UK, just with a higher tariff.

Voices from all corners of society, including farming unions, businesses, consumer, public health and environmental organisations have all warned that UK standards should not be up for negotiation. Recent polling reveals the majority of the British public think we should not accept lower quality food imports and a petition calling for standards to be protected in law has received over 1 million signatures.

In response to this mounting pressure, the Government has set up a new Trade and Agriculture Commission to advise on trade deals. But the Commission’s membership lacks environmental and public health representation and its powers are advisory, meaning there is no guarantee that the Government will follow its recommendations.

Why are we concerned?

Adopting a dual tariff approach risks flooding the UK with imports that would undermine current standards and undercut UK farmers, paving the way for the erosion of British standards in the future. At CIEH, we are concerned that opening the door to products like hormone-treated beef and chlorinated chicken, will have serious implications for the environment, animal welfare, and most importantly, public health.

US rates of food-borne illness are far higher than in the UK and any increases in food-borne illness could have a disproportionate effect on vulnerable groups, including young children, the elderly and people with weaker immune systems, who are at greater risk of becoming severely ill with food poisoning.

A trade deal with the US also risks exposing UK consumers to a greater number of harmful pesticides, currently banned in the UK. The UK authorises the use of 2900 pesticide products, compared to the 9000 approved in the US. The US also permits higher levels of pesticide residues in food. For example, in the US, apples are allowed to contain 400 times the level of the insecticide malathion than UK apples. Malathion can impair the respiratory system and cause confusion, headaches and weakness, and WHO has classified malathion as "probably carcinogenic” to humans.

We are concerned that unregulated and cheaply produced US food imports will put pressure on livestock farmers to intensify their practices. Chlorine washed chicken has been banned in the EU since 1997 and there are concerns that chlorine washing can mask lower standards of animal welfare and hygiene standards in production, slaughter and processing. Moreover, a 2018 study from the University of Southampton found that chlorine washing was not totally effective in eliminating the bacteria that cause food poisoning in leaf vegetables. Rather, the process merely blocked the standard method by which the presence of these bacteria should be revealed.

US farmers also use considerably higher levels of antibiotics in farming, which risks fuelling antibiotic resistance. In the US, total antibiotic use in farm animals is five times higher than in the UK and in cows, it is 8-9 times higher.

What has CIEH been doing about it?

We have been contacting MPs and peers to raise our concerns about the possible erosion of UK standards. We have been delighted by the positive responses and expressions of support we have received. Our engagement has ensured our views have been strongly echoed in parliamentary debates and in key amendments to the Agriculture Bill, aimed at enshrining protections for UK standards in law. We have also worked closely with Lord Nigel Jones of Cheltenham and Lord Toby Harris of Haringey to table parliamentary questions covering our key concerns.

Beyond our Parliamentary lobbying, we have been working with the media and in partnership with other organisations and academics to call on supermarkets and catering providers to publicly commit to not selling products of lower standards. We have received responses from several supermarkets who have since come out publicly to say they will not stock products that would breach current UK standards.

What's next?

After Parliamentary recess, the Trade Bill, which provides the legal framework for post-Brexit UK trade policy, moves to the House of Lords. This gives us another opportunity to lobby for our food and farming standards to be protected in law. We have also been surveying members on their views to inform our evidence base so we can continue to make a strong case for ensuring all food imports meet current UK standards.

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