Calls to enshrine British farming standards in law were rejected by the Government yesterday.
On Monday MPs will vote on an amendment to the agricultural Bill that stipulates food products imported under future trade deals meet or exceed UK domestic standards.
Environment Secretary George Eustice told the Daily Mail he would not support the amendment.
And he said ministers expect MPs to reject it despite lobbying from environmental and farming groups and celebrities.
Environment Secretary George Eustice (pictured) told the Daily Mail he would not support the amendment
The groups see the amendment as a guarantee that UK farmers cannot be undercut by foreign producers with lower standards after the Brexit transition expires in January.
Mr Eustice insisted the amendment was unnecessary and would cause ‘technical issues’ over existing trade terms with some South American countries.
He said there were ‘difficulties, practically, in putting these sorts of amendments into primary legislation’, adding: ‘There’s a small amount of access for some products, including beef from South America at the moment. Not all of them would necessarily meet our standards, but it’s relatively small quantities.’
He insisted chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef would not be permitted under any trade deal with the US. He said importing such products was illegal and would remain so. And he urged voters to trust the Tory manifesto commitment to protect food standards.
Mr Eustice said the UK was the third largest food market in the world after China and Japan, putting the UK in a ‘powerful position to dictate access’.
He said: ‘We can make sure that we retain consumer confidence in any imports that come in here.
‘And it’s also in the interest of producers in these other countries like Australia and the US, if they want to come in and have a good reputation, and for there to be consumer confidence in their products, it’ll be very important that they work with us to ensure that they produce to our standards that our consumers will accept.’
But Emily Thornberry, Labour’s trade spokesman, said Mr Eustice was neglecting his responsibilities.
‘His whole job is to represent the interests of British farmers and he must stand up for them now against cut-price competition from American mega farms with minimal standards of animal welfare,’ she said.
‘Is he really prepared to tell our farmers they have to compete with cheap imports of beef and pork that would be illegal for them to produce here at home?
‘That cannot be right, which is why he must do his job, listen to reason, and write into law that imports from the US can only be sold in Britain if they meet the same standards our farmers are required to meet.’
Minette Batters, of the National Farmers’ Union, warns of the risk of a ‘race to the bottom’.
Writing in today’s Mail, she says: ‘The Government, so far, has refused to countenance amendments to the bill that would enshrine in law vital safeguards to protect us from a surfeit of cheap, sub-standard imported food from other countries with whom we may agree a post-Brexit trade deal.
‘We farmers worry Boris Johnson is fundamentally indifferent to the importance of British food production. I can only hope that the NFU’s 50,000 members are not being lined up like Texas longhorns for eventual sacrifice to the prize of a wider Anglo-American trade deal.’
Phil Stocker, of the National Sheep Association, said allowing in small quantities of lower standard products to safeguard other trade ‘flies in the face of the UK’s stated aim to see animal welfare standards increased across the world’.
Downing Street has also made it clear it intends to reject a second amendment to establish a permanent and independent trade and agriculture commission to scrutinise any accords before they are signed.
A temporary commission was set up by ministers earlier this year to advise them on their overall approach to trade deals, but it is due to be disbanded after it reports back in the new year.
Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver is leading a campaign to extend the existing commission and add public health experts, arguing that it ‘lacks teeth’.
The Government faces a rebellion from Tory MPs in Monday’s vote, but it is unlikely to be big enough to inflict defeat. About two dozen are thought to be prepared to defy the whip. Ministers fear that, if passed, the amendments would tie their hands in future trade talks.
Trade expert Shanker Singham, who sits on the Government’s trade and agriculture commission, said: ‘It would tie negotiators’ hands, so the Government really has to choose between a “global Britain” trade policy or this sort of approach.
‘You can’t have both.’