The second round of trade talks between the United States and United Kingdom has ended with food standards, including safety, still high on the agenda.

Negotiations on a free trade agreement (FTA) took place from June 15 to 26 with the next session planned for the end of July. They began in May with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. The U.S. is the UK’s largest bilateral trading partner and biggest export market outside of the EU.

Trade Minister Liz Truss said there is no set deadline for any agreement.

“The government remains clear on protecting the National Health Service (NHS) and not compromising on the UK’s high environmental protection, animal welfare and food safety standards,” she said.

No to chlorinated chicken and hormone treated beef
This reiterates previous comments from a government spokesperson, who said it would not sign a trade deal that compromises on these areas.

“Chlorinated chicken and hormone injected beef are not permitted for import into the UK. This will be retained through the EU Withdrawal Act and enshrined in UK law at the end of the transition agreement,” said the spokesperson.

Sue Davies, head of consumer protection and food policy at consumer watchdog Which?, said the current status of food standards in UK law could be changed with limited parliamentary scrutiny.

“In order to maintain the UK’s current high standards, the government should take the opportunity to proactively put its commitments into law through the trade or agriculture bills – giving consumers and food producers reassurance that our hard-won food standards will never be on the table in trade negotiations.”

On July 1, the International Agreements Sub-Committee had its first evidence session on the UK-US trade negotiations, focusing on agri-foods. Speakers included Nick von Westenholz, of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU); Michael Haverty, from The Andersons Centre; and Elsa Fairbanks, director at the Food and Drink Exporters’ Association.

Topics such as Sanitary and Phytosanitary Standards (SPS) and animal welfare, genetically modified foods, geographical indications, and trade in agricultural and food products were covered.

Commission to look at food standards
Truss said the government will set up a Trade and Agriculture Commission looking at food and farming standards but any recommendations it makes would only be advisory.

NFU president Minette Batters said it first called for such a group 18 months ago.

“We look forward to working with government and other stakeholders in the days ahead on the Commission’s terms of reference, to ensure that its work is genuinely valuable. In particular, it will be vital that parliament is able to properly consider the Commission’s recommendations and can ensure government implements them effectively,” she said.

An NFU petition urging government to ensure future trade deals do not lead to increased food imports that would be illegal to produce in Britain has received more than 1 million signatures.

Vicki Hird, head of food and farming policy at Sustain, welcomed the move but added it did not cover all issues.

“We note that she has only agreed to a Trade and Agriculture Commission in principle, that it would be time limited and that its recommendations would be advisory only. Such a weak and short term approach leaves so many cracks through which our food standards could slip.”

Questions remain
The Ulster Farmers’ Union has been pushing for legislation to ensure the UK’s production standards are not undermined and this will continue as part of the Agriculture and Trade Bills. UFU president Ivor Ferguson said a detailed trade and standards roadmap is needed.

“We have welcomed and been reassured by verbal assurances and manifesto commitments on the issue. But by themselves they are incapable of answering the question at the heart of the matter: how can a government, both practically and legally, liberalize trade while safeguarding the UK’s high and valued standards of production,” Ferguson asked.

The National Sheep Association (NSA) chief executive Phil Stocker said it was a good starting point but lots of questions remained.

“At this stage, this could still just be government paying lip service to industry, so NSA will continue to call for real legislative commitment through the Trade Bill or Agriculture Bill. The government hasn’t committed to setting up this committee, or how it will look or be run. We will be clear, this committee should be formed to assess each proposed FTA for its individual risks, the reports should be released publicly, and the government should be required to issue a public response,” Stocker said.

Letter warning retailers about imports
In June, Sustain, Compassion in World Farming and City University’s Professor of Food Policy, Tim Lang sent a letter to nine retailers on importing low standard meat, dairy and egg products.

The letter covered issues including hormone-treated beef, ractopamine pork, chlorine-washed chicken, overuse of antibiotics and pesticides, and use of battery cages.

Lang said as government makes deals with countries which have lower standards, retailers have a choice to make.

“Will they retain current standards as a minimum or be pushed by government into creating a two tier market? Many academics from diverse disciplines are acutely aware that not just health, environment and animal welfare are at stake, but public trust in retailers themselves.”

In a different open letter, Waitrose executive director James Bailey said it would never sell, under the supermarket’s own label, hormone-treated beef.

“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,” Waitrose said.

Which? also has a food standards petition with more than 200,000 signatures. The consumer group surveyed 2,078 adults in June and three-fifths said food produced to lower standards should not be on sale regardless of labelling. A total of 63 percent said chlorine-washed chicken should not be sold in supermarkets, even if labelled and this figure was 61 percent for hormone-treated beef.

In April, Friends of the Earth raised concerns about starting trade negotiations with the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic in a letter sent to Liz Truss.

“It would be deeply inappropriate for trade negotiations with the U.S. to commence at this time – or for the foreseeable future. The UK government’s attention should be focused on dealing with the public health and economic crises which face our nation. We have multiple concerns about a trade agreement with the US – particularly in relation to food standards, animal welfare protections, and chemical and pesticide safeguards.”

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