Boris Johnson is facing a backlash for ditching a pledge to keep US chlorinated chicken out of British supermarkets under pressure from American negotiators in post-Brexit trade talks.
Tory backbenchers warned the government was in for a rebellion on the issue while animal welfare groups and opposition parties accused Boris Johnson of refusing to “stand up to Donald Trump” and “sacrificing food standards” in the name of a trade deal.
Downing Street signalled on Thursday that imports of lower-standard American food were now on the table in the negotiations, a reversal of a longstanding promise.
As recently as January, Theresa Villiers, then environment secretary, reiterated that “we will not be importing chlorinated chicken” – but since then US trade chiefs have put pressure on the UK to change its position, leading the government to change tack.
While the government’s own best-case scenarios says an agreement with the US would lead to a tiny boost to the economy of just 0.16 per cent of GDP, failing to sign such a deal would be highly politically embarrassing for Boris Johnson, who has presented such an arrangement as part of the alternative to EU membership.
Simon Hoare, a Tory MP who was one of 22 Conservatives who voted against the government to defend UK food standards in future trade deals last month, told The Independent: “If this appalling news is true it’s depressing as it rides a coach and horses through assurances given by ministers to the Commons and what the Tory party manifesto said in December.
“A lot of colleagues did not vote for the amendment because of those government assurances. Ministers are in for a scrap on this one. Public opinion is clear on this issue: they see animal welfare as important.”
Greenpeace UK executive director John Sauven also accused the government of breaking its pledges on the issue.
“Over and over again this government has promised our animal welfare and food standards won’t be used as bargaining chips to wangle a trade deal with the US, yet this is what they are now proposing,” he said.
“The best way to uphold these safeguards is to ban products made by breaching them. Once you allow the principle that it’s OK to sell these controversial products in the UK, you’re effectively sanctioning the poor farming practices that our standards are meant to protect against.”
Ministers are said to be open to giving access to the controversial US food products, that also include hormone-fed beef and crops treated with 82 different pesticides banned in the EU, but applying tariffs on them to protect UK-based farmers from competition.
Under the so-called “dual tariff” system being looked at, American agribusiness would be allowed to sell goods in the UK even if they were not complying with the same production standards as British farmers – as long as they paid the tariff.
Some ministers, such as free-marketer Liz Truss, want to go further, the Daily Telegraph reports – and gradually reduce these tariffs to zero over 10 years, giving farmers time to adjust to the new normal.
“Who’s to guarantee that ministers won’t lower the tariffs later on under pressure from Donald Trump and the US industry lobbies?” said Greenpeace’s Mr Sauven.
“We must build a healthier, safer food system that’s good for people, UK farmers and the planet – and this is the opposite of that.”
At the end of January the US secretary of state Mike Pompeo took to the British media to explain that the issue of access for American food producers was important to US interests.
“We need to be open and honest about competitiveness. We need to make sure we don’t use food safety as a ruse to try and protect a particular industry,” he said, ahead of the UK’s change of policy.
The US government also officially considers country-of-origin labelling a barrier to trade, suggesting it is likely to push for such practices to be outlawed in a free trade agreement. This would make it impossible for consumers to tell whether their product had been sourced from the US.
The US Department for Trade says it has “consistently raised concerns” about country of origin labelling at the World Trade Organisation, notably because of “the potential to favour select countries, and the impact on US exports”.
Sam Lowe, a senior fellow at the Centre of European Reform and an expert on international trade, suggested that it was inevitable that the UK would have to give ground on food standards if it wanted a deal with Donald Trump.
“It has always been the case that if the UK is to secure a free trade agreement with the US, it will need to find a way of giving America what it wants when it comes to agriculture and food standards,” he told The Independent.
“Just saying ‘no’ was never an option, and if the reports here are accurate, government discussion has moved on to ‘how’ the UK accommodates the US on this issue, rather than ‘if’.”
The Liberal Democrats’ trade spokesperson Sarah Only said: “The Conservatives will not stand up to Donald Trump, even if it means sacrificing our own food standards. The prime minister has been forced to go back on his word yet again – and this time the consequences will be on the table for all to see.
“We knew from the trade bill that this Conservative government was determined to be able to make whatever trade deal they like, with whomever they like, with no accountability. Now we know why.
“All of their promises on food standards, environmental protections and the NHS are meaningless without the necessary parliamentary scrutiny to hold them to account.
“The desperation of the Conservative government to get whatever deals they can at whatever cost only further shows how much they have reduced our standing on the world stage.”
A government spokesperson said: “The UK is renowned for its high environmental, food safety and animal welfare standards.
“We have been clear that in all of our trade negotiations – including with the US in our first round of negotiations – that we will not undermine our high domestic environmental protection, animal welfare and food safety standards by ensuring in any agreement British farmers are always able to compete.”
The National Farmers’ Union old a parliamentary inquiry into a US trade deal that “UK producers are happy producing to the high standards they currently produce to and would like to continue to do that”.
The organisation says trade agreements shouldn’t allow the import of food that would be illegal to produce in the UK and that it wants an independent commission set up to review trade agreements.
Asked whether the promise to keep chlorinated chicken off UK plates remained, the prime minister’s official spokesperson would only say: “The position is that the UK will decide how we set and maintain our own standards and regulations and we have been clear that we will not compromise on our high standards of food safety and animal welfare.
“The UK’s food regulators will continue to provide independent advice to ensure that all food imports comply with those high safety standards.”
Kierra Box, campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “Setting high UK import standards was never just about keeping farmers afloat, it was about environmental principles. It was an opportunity for the government to deliver on their claims that the UK would set a high global bar for restoring nature and beating the climate emergency.
“Moving to a tariff-based approach makes it clear that for government, this is about the economics and little to do with our environment. With Donald Trump anxious for a deal that opens up the UK to environmentally damaging imports, it’s especially worrying that secretary of state, Liz Truss, seems intent on phasing out any economic disincentive within a decade.
“This makes it even more important that the UK sets out a clear commitment to maintain these standards in primary legislation, or we can watch standards being traded away during negotiations.”
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