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New Commission Aims to Protect U.K. Food Standards in Future U.S. Trade Deal

While the government has ceded ground on its approach to animal welfare, this is still a case of treating food as an issue separate from politics

Chicken on a production line
While chlorinated chicken has been the linchpin of food standards discussion, it goes much deeper than that
Wrightfield Manufacture

An independent commission will scrutinise the U.K.’s agricultural trade policies going forward, following sustained concern about food standard security in future trade deals with the U.S.A. International trade secretary Liz Truss said that the commission will explore which policies the U.K. “should adopt in free trade agreements to ensure U.K. farmers do not face unfair competition and that their high animal welfare and production standards are not undermined,” according to the Financial Times. The commission will, however, only have advisory powers.

The focus on farming comes after sustained lobbying from the National Farmers’ Union, (NFU) whose food standards petition has amassed over one million signatures, as well as support from high-profile food figures like Jamie Oliver. The arrival of even cheaper meat into the U.K. after any eventual trade deal would undercut U.K. farmers, and leave their only recourse to compete being a lowering of welfare standards for both animals and employees to facilitate lower cost production. That deal, however, may not be done with Donald Trump’s administration, with the presidential election just under five months away.

That lobbying responded to government backsliding on pledges to protect U.K. food standards. At the start of June, six months after being elected on a manifesto pledging that “we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards,” the government signalled its intention to allow U.S. foods that do not meet current U.K. food standards into circulation, subject to high tariffs designed to protect farmers. It had previously suggested that this would not be in its plans.

The shibboleth for this debate is chlorinated chicken, which has become an easily recognisable lightning rod for unambitious discussions about the future of U.K. food policy after Brexit. The chemical’s association with disinfectant and swimming pools sometimes inflates its minor role in a poultry supply chain riddled with labour abuses and environmental destruction, whose working conditions have made it a hotspot for novel coronavirus transmission in the U.S. and the U.K. It is a clearly defined, easily protested bogeyman for consequences that are in reality much less graspable and unlikely to affect those protesting. A food trade deal that compromises U.K. food standards would disempower consumers who do not have the economic freedom to choose where their meat comes from, who cannot buy high-welfare meat and pretend it’s a genuine solution to food inequality.

The NFU has heralded the commission as a positive step — it is exactly what it wanted. The larger and graver concern is that any recommendations to enshrine U.K. food standards would deter any deal being done, and striking such a deal — not just for the economy but as a symbol of its Brexit project — is much more important to the government than keeping American meat out of the country.