Boris Johnson is facing a damaging defeat that would block imports of chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef, in a fresh blow to his hopes of a post-Brexit trade deal with the US.
Peers are poised to slam the brakes on any watering down of food and animal welfare standards – to stop ministers selling the country “down the river”, one former government adviser told The Independent.
The move, in a vote as early as this week, would give teeth to a new advisory body, handing it the power to ensure the longed-for deal with Washington does not allow in low-quality food.
“We are all confident that our amendments will go through,” said Baroness McIntosh, a Conservative peer and former shadow minister.
The revolt is also being led by Lord Curry of Kirkharle, who carried out a landmark policy review on farming and food in 2002 – and who cast doubt on ministerial pledges not to dilute standards.
“They want to leave their options open, they don’t want to have their hands tied – that’s the bottom line,” the crossbench peer warned.
“We don’t want our food supply undermined by imported food from countries with poorer animal welfare standards, selling our food production down the river by negotiating cheap deals.”
The House of Lords clash on the Agriculture Bill is a fresh headache for the prime minister – already entangled in the furious row over his plans to renege on his Brexit agreement and deadlocked trade talks with the EU.
The US has made opening the door to its lower-grade agricultural goods a red line in separate talks – Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, insisting during a visit in January that it must be part of any deal.
It prompted Liz Truss, the trade secretary, to propose lifting the ban on acid-washed chicken and hormone-fed beef, with higher – but gradually reducing – tariffs as a sop to critics.
The consumer group Which? has branded a US deal the greatest risk to food safety since mad cow disease 20 years ago, warning the UK’s “food safety revolution” is in jeopardy.
Hopes of a US trade deal are already in deep trouble, with furious Congressional leaders insisting they will block it if the Brexit agreement on Northern Ireland is unravelled.
Now UK peers are confident the government will struggle to overturn a defeat giving effective blocking powers to the new Trade and Agriculture Commission, when the bill returns to the Commons.
Unease is growing on the Conservative benches, where 18 Tory MPs staged an unsuccessful revolt in May in an attempt to impose a strict legal bar on any diluting of standards.
The Agriculture Commission has been criticised for being advisory only, and for lasting for only six months, despite admiration for its chair Tim Smith, a former head of the Food Standards Agency.
The amendments would ensure the commission is retained for at least four years, make it independent of the Department of Trade – and require it to sign off any trade agreement.
It reflects the confidence that the body will never sanction lower standards, achieving the “same objective” as an outright legal guarantee, one peer said.
Baroness McIntosh said ministers would otherwise be able to slip through changes using regulations – without full scrutiny – with environmental safeguards and workers’ rights also at stake.
“There is an absolute need for this, so the government can’t change food safety or animal welfare standards at the stroke of a pen,” she said.
“Consumers want to see these high standards in place and farmers want to know that if they meet these high standards – which they are willing to do – they are not going to be undercut.”
Labour’s Lord Grantchester, who will push for an outright block on lowering standards, said: “The government claims to have taken on the concerns of parliamentarians – as well as supermarkets and consumers – by establishing a new commission.
“But it is toothless, will only exist for a few months, and has no powers to stop the import of inferior products.”
But a government spokesperson said: “Our manifesto commitment could not be clearer – we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.
“It is illegal to import chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-fed beef into the UK and any changes would require new legislation to be brought before this parliament.
“We remain focused on getting a deal that works in the best interests of our farmers and consumers.”