The Government has been accused of weakening the UK’s food and farming rules as it prepares for a post-Brexit future, undermining the Prime Minister’s promise of a green recovery from the pandemic barely a fortnight after he announced the plans.
A new report from farming and food safety experts says ministers have acquired powers to change the rules on food imports without parliamentary votes or thorough scrutiny.
Standards governing the use of antibiotics in farming are set to be weakened in January, the Future British Standards Coalition (FBSC) claims, with regulations on hormones and food additives also now easier to change.
A government spokesperson called the report, authored by farming, food safety and environmental experts from organisations including the Faculty of Public Health and RSPCA, “unhelpful scaremongering”.
“The unity of voice across farming, environmental, animal welfare and public health groups underlines the imperative that UK Government doesn’t drop the ball in reaching trade agreements which undermine domestic food production standards,” said George Denny, chief executive of the Tenant Farmers Association, part of the FBSC.
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Environmental and food safety campaigners have long warned that the UK should not compromise on standards to accept trade deals after leaving the European Union.
And ministers have insisted that rules on imports will not be softened and insist controversial products like chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef are off the menu in any negotiations.
The FBSC cited specific concerns over food production in two countries with whom the UK is negotiating: the United States – where a 2018 outbreak of super-resistant salmonella – was linked to the overuse of an antibiotic in cattle – and Australia, which uses pesticides with links to long-term health damage including birth defects.
A government spokesperson told the Big Issue: “This government has been clear it will not sign a trade deal that will compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards, and claims to the contrary are unhelpful scaremongering. We are a world leader in these areas and that will not change.
“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 period.
“The government is focused on getting trade deals that protect and advance the interests of our farmers and consumers. If a deal isn’t the right one, we will walk away.”
The government has sought to allay industry and parliamentary fears by creating a new advisory Trade and Agriculture Commission (TAC) which would advise on bills for the next three years.
But Denny said “extending the tenure of the Trade and Agriculture Commission will mean nothing if it is toothless, side-lined and ignored.
“Now is the time for the Government to show that it is indeed determined to deliver its General Election Manifesto commitment to protect standards in trade.”
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.”