Two-tier Brexit food standards system ‘unacceptable’, NFUS warns

Farmers will not accept a two-tier standards system that would see their businesses “sold down the river” by cheap food imports, the UK government has been told.

The warning from NFU Scotland (NFUS) president Andrew McCornick came after Moray Conservative MP Douglas Ross was jeered by farmers for suggesting clear labelling should be enough to deter consumers from buying cheap food imports.

Mr McCornick told Mr Ross, parliamentary undersecretary of state for Scotland, that such a scenario would be “unacceptable” for farmers.

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During a session on how UK government policy will affect Scottish farming at the NFUS annual conference on Thursday (6 February), a farmer asked Mr Ross if imported foods would have to meet the same high standards as food produced on UK farms.

The MP replied: “There are ongoing discussions on this point. [International trade secretary] Liz Truss has been just announcing some things today.

“Ultimately, it’s up to the market and if products come in like that, I am reassured that consumers will know which are the best products to purchase.”

Audience jeers

Farmers in the audience at the conference in Glasgow roundly jeered Mr Ross for his comments.

He went on: “They will be reassured that the produce from Scottish farmers and UK farmers is of a significant standard, that they would not want to buy chlorinated chicken, or hormone-induced beef.

“It is an issue that we are looking at in any [trade] deals going forward and it’s one at the very top of the agenda for ministers across various departments who are looking at this.”

NFUS president Andrew McCornick told Mr Ross that farmers had strong feelings about this issue.

“If we are going to allow products into this country that would be illegal for us to produce, that is not acceptable,” said Mr McCornick.

“That message needs to go back. It’s certainly something we are very anxious that you and whoever is negotiating these trade deals is aware of. We would like to see something with a bit of teeth in here to make sure that is not happening. Or, you are basically selling us down the river.

“There will be two sets of standards – one for us, this high standard – and a standard anyone who has a low price can come into the country with. It’s not accepted.”

Legislation needed

In his keynote speech, Mr McCornick said standards on food imports post Brexit must match those in the UK. He added: “This should be written into a trade bill in Westminster – it certainly doesn’t appear in the Agriculture Bill.”

Defra secretary Theresa Villiers has pledged that no chlorine-washed chicken or hormone-treated beef will be allowed into the UK under any trade deal with the US. Former Defra secretary Michael Gove made similar promises.

However, Boris Johnson’s government this week voted down a Labour amendment to the Bill that called for legal safeguards to protect farmers from cheap food imports produced to lower standards.