Defra farm minister George Eustice has said it would be wrong to open UK markets up to foreign food imports produced to lower standards after Brexit – but he can’t guarantee it won’t happen.
Addressing the Egg and Poultry Industry Conference in South Wales, Mr Eustice said he and fellow ministers at the Department for International Trade “are crystal clear that we will not water down our animal welfare and our food standards in pursuit of a trade deal”.
“There is no doubt that some other countries that want access to our market will request that, but we do not need to accept that.”
But when pressed on whether US chlorinated chicken would be allowed in, Mr Eustice said it was all a question of “equivalence” of standards, rather than having an identical rule book.
“In trade negotiations it is possible to recognise equivalence,” he said. “Your regulations may not be written identically, word for word, as it is in the European Union. But in all our future trade deals, we will be arguing for a recognition of equivalence.
“The basic principle should be that, if you are seeking to do business with another country, you should respect the rules and customs of the country you want to do business with.”
NFU president Minette Batters accused the minister of “dodging the bullet” by refusing to guarantee that imports will not be allowed in if they are produced to standards which would be illegal in the UK.
“The honest answer for government is to legislate, to ensure that animal welfare, environmental protection and food safety standards will be a requirement in wider free trade agreements,” she said. “It really is as simple as that.”
Ms Batters warned that, even though Defra ministers might believe their warm words were enough to protect producers, there were plenty in the Conservative party who saw Brexit at as opportunity to have cheaper food.
“That is the greatest risk to this sector,” she said.
A new world order in poultry
Hatchery owner James Hook, of PD Hook, warned that the threat of chlorinated chicken was not going to go away. The US was adamant that any trade deal it might do with the UK post-Brexit would have to cover food imports.
He also pointed to Chinese interest in the UK breast meat market, and warned of continued expansion of poultry exports from Ukraine.
“There will be a change in the world order, and the only thing we’ve got to counter that will be high standards,” he said.
Red Tractor had already proved its worth in keeping out imports, he suggested. Since its introduction, the broiler market had grown from 14 million birds a week to 20 million.
“It’s a question of getting the standards right. We can’t be so high that we can’t afford to do it, but we can’t be so low that they can all come in,” he said.