British negotiators will begin talks with the US on a post-Brexit trade deal on 24 July, Liam Fox has revealed.
EU rules prohibit member states from making separate trade deals with countries outside the bloc.
But the Secretary of State for International Trade has repeatedly insisted there is nothing to stop the British Government “scoping out” how a future relationship with America might look.
Speaking on BBC One’s Question Time, Mr Fox said talks with his US counterparts would begin next month as he seeks to make new trade deals with “very, very big markets” outside Europe.
The former defence secretary was confronted by a fellow panel member about the risk that US negotiators may not be willing to strike a deal unless the UK agrees to less stringent food safety standards.
Concerns have been raised that British supermarkets could be flooded with chlorine-washed chicken, hormone-treated beef and pork laced with a controversial drug that is banned in more than 150 countries as part of a post-Brexit trade deal with the US.
Mr Fox avoided responding directly to that charge, but said: “We are not rejecting Europe, we want an open and liberal trading arrangement with Europe.
“But there are some very, very big markets out there that we will be able to take advantage of.
“And as for [the claim that] the US will not talk to us, I’ve got news for you, we are beginning our actual discussions on the 24 July.”
Mr Fox was in Washington earlier this month to meet US commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, and US trade representative, Robert Lighthizer.
He said then that negotiations would begin in July. But his Question Time appearance on Thursday evening was the first time a concrete date has been given for when UK-US trade talks will begin.
American food safety standards for a range of meat, poultry and dairy products are much lower than those imposed by the European Food Safety Authority.
Environmentalists warn Britain may be forced to accept lower quality products – from the use of banned flavourings to cloned meat and increased pesticides - in exchange for a quick deal.
In January, Philip Hammond said the Government would resolutely adhere to EU rules barring individual trade deals with third countries while the UK is still a member.
"Of course we want to strengthen our trade ties with the very many trade partners we have around the world, but we're very mindful of our obligations under the treaty and we will follow them precisely," he said.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies