UK trade body to push for tough standards on imported food

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A commission advising the UK government on post-Brexit trade will push for a tough approach to standards of imported food, its chairman told the Financial Times.

Tim Smith, a former head of the Food Standards Agency and group quality director at Tesco, who heads the Trade and Agriculture Commission, said: “Our approach is going to be — we’re not going to allow . . . any backsliding, any kind of race to the bottom.

“We’ve spent two or three decades evolving our food standards, and consumers in this country and other stakeholders don’t want to see any deterioration or change.”

Imported food standards are a key concern for farmers, who are worried that as the UK makes post-Brexit trade deals, their own products may be undercut by imports of foods grown using techniques banned in Britain, from pesticides to restrictive sow stalls for pigs.

But Mr Smith said: “We can’t concede that it is sensible to do trade deals with countries that aren’t prepared to accept our standards, for example in antibiotics use.”

Mr Smith, whose commission was set up in July to advise the government on its trade strategy as it relates to farming, said negotiators would need to take a nuanced approach to the food standards of other countries rather than require identical rules.

“It may be that they have found different methods of achieving the same objectives,” he said.

The commission will produce recommendations for the government in February before being replaced by a new statutory body to scrutinise trade deals, as post-Brexit agreements have the potential to reshape the UK food market.

It will also recommend a far more proactive approach to food exports, said Mr Smith.

“We will be pressing government and the industry to think much harder about export opportunities and to be contemplating where industries in the UK are under-represented in markets overseas.”

Food standards may be a particular challenge in reaching a trade deal with the US, which has listed as a negotiating aim access to the UK market for its agricultural products.

US farmers use a range of drugs in livestock farming that are banned in the UK, from antibiotics for growth promotion to ractopamine, used to promote lean meat formation in pigs and cattle, according to a report last month by the UK’s Sustainable Food Trust, a charity.

Ministers from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland last week told the Oxford Farming Conference, which was held online, that they were deeply concerned about threats to farming from trade deals.

Fergus Ewing, Scotland’s cabinet secretary for rural economy, said: “We are very concerned that cheap imported food post-Brexit may threaten British farming.”

But Mr Smith said: “It is possible to say that the UK has made fantastic strides in reducing antibiotics used in meat production, and we’d like to see the same progress from countries that we trade with.”

Ministers in Westminster have pledged to enforce high food standards but last year rejected an attempt to bind the government to do so by law.

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