Australian meat industry leaders are heavily lobbying their government to put pressure on Britain to accept products currently banned under EU law after Brexit.
Among the meat products suggested for export to the UK are hormone-treated beef and “burnt goat heads”.
Ministers from both countries met last week to discuss the future of their trading relationship, amid concerns that the Australian government could force the UK to lower food standards.
Trade minister Liam Fox has long mooted Australia as a key trading partner for the UK when it ceases to be part of the EU.
The Department for International Trade has stated it “will not lower food, animal welfare or environmental standards as part of any free trade agreement”.
“Maintaining them is the right thing to do for our consumers and maintains the UK’s world-renowned reputation for high-quality products,” a spokesperson told The Independent.
But Kierra Box, Brexit campaign lead at Friends of the Earth (FoE), said the government is "saying one thing but doing something completely different”.
“The government can continue to claim they are protecting our environment and health but in reality these promises are flimsy and unconvincing.”
An investigation by FoE has revealed the extent of lobbying by the Australian meat and livestock industry as Brexit draws closer.
Foremost among their demands has been the insistence that “technical barriers” to trade are removed once the UK’s relationship with the EU ends.
However, farmers and environmentalists are concerned about the impact the removal of such “barriers” could have both on British farms and the quality of food.
“Brexit provides an unprecedented opportunity for the Australian red meat industry to enhance its trading relationship with the UK,” Andrew McCallum from Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) wrote in a letter to Australian Parliament in 2017.
“A more liberalised UK import regime than is currently in place, would deliver substantial advantages not only to the Australian red meat industry but to UK importers, wholesalers, distributors, food service and retail operators as well as consumers.”
David Larkin, the general manager of production at Thomas Foods International, explained in an inquiry last October that the UK once accounted for 80 per cent of Australian red meat exports before joining the EU.
Though still considered important, the UK now makes up only 1.5 per cent of exports by volume.
The Australian meat industry is keen to re-establish itself as a major exporter of meat to the UK, but it is currently restricted by EU rules and quotas that it feels are unfair.
“The [UK] market has continued to establish itself as a high-value market and is one that is protected by a number of barriers to trade,” explained Mr Larkin.
“Those barriers to trade are subsidies, tariffs and quota, and technical trade barriers in the form of HGP [hormonal growth promotant] bans and processing directives in terms of equivalence in processing sites.”
Growth hormones that have been banned in the EU since 1981 due to health concerns are used on about 40 percent of Australian cattle and have been in employed for more than three decades.
During a hearing of the Australian trade sub-committee at the end of 2017, Jason Strong, chair of the EU and UK Red Meat Industry Taskforce, said increased trade quotas with the UK would be an opportunity to export not only more high quality products but also those of the lowest quality.
According to agricultural news service Farm Online, Mr Strong told the committee Australia could send low value products including “burnt goat heads”.
The industry is confident that Brexit will open new opportunities for its meat industry, and the Australian parliament concluded in October that “since Brexit, UK standards and conformance bodies have expressed greater intent to cooperate further with Australia’s standards and conformance infrastructure”.
In Britain, there is concern about what this could mean.
“Our standards adopted through the EU are possibly some of the highest standards in the world,” Jon Andrews, a farmer from south Devon and England chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, told The Independent.
He highlighted worries about lower animal welfare and environmental standards in nations like Australia, as well as the impact on British farmers.
“Sheep and beef imports of that nature risk depressing the UK beef price, beyond which our producers really couldn’t remain in business if it happen on a larger scale – it’s not something I’d like to see Liam Fox trading away,” he said.
Ms Box said: “Facing future deals that will force us to accept dodgy meat we would never have previously considered isn’t what people voted for.”
“We used to be rightly proud of our food safety and environmental standards. Those safeguards didn’t just magically exist, they were deliberately put in place for good reason and were vigorously controlled.
“If the UK doesn’t set out our stall for the future of food right now, it won’t just be Australia pushing their reject meat onto us.”
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