The battleground of Brexit

Chlorinated chicken was among the buzzwords at the NFU Conference this year as farmers sought assurances from government over food standards.

By Michael Barker

Defra secretary of state George Eustice has insisted UK farmers have nothing to fear on food standards as the industry prepares to draw battle lines over the issue.

At the NFU Conference in Birmingham in February, the poultry and wider agricultural industry made clear their anxiety over the possibility of chlorine-washed chicken being imported into the UK following a trade deal with the US, undermining food standards and disadvantaging British farmers.

Calling imported food standards “the battleground of Brexit”, NFU president Minette Batters led calls for concrete commitments from government, starting with the formation a Trade & Standards Commission made up of experts who will oversee trade regulations on agriculture and food. “This isn’t just about chlorinated chicken,” stressed Batters, who had begun her keynote speech by describing 2020 as the most significant year for British farming since the 1940s. “This is about a wider principle. We must not tie the hands of British farmers to the highest rung of the standards ladder whilst waving through food imports which may not even reach the bottom rung.”

Batters also called for it to be enshrined in the new Agriculture Bill that food will not be imported that would be illegal to produce in the UK. And she had a stark warning if that does not happen: “Remember my words, we will rue the day that we step back from the Food Safety Act of 1999 rather than moving forward to build a better industry. If the government is serious about animal welfare and environmental protection, it must put legislation in the Agriculture Bill.”

In response, an equally feisty Eustice pointed out that he was highly active as a backbench MP making the case for food standards, and insisted that hasn’t changed since he was appointed secretary of state. “Our manifesto commits to us maintaining our animal welfare and food safety standards in trade deals. And of course I’m continuing to work very closely with colleagues and officials in other departments, such as the Department for International Trade, and we will have discussions with those countries with which we seek to do trade deals so they can understand our farm-to-fork approach,” he said.

“It’s already unlawful to sell chlorine-washed chicken or hormone-treated beef – there’s a prohibition on sale that’s in our regulations already. I don’t agree that you have no assurances – it’s in our manifesto, it’s clear, and in the coming weeks we will be publishing our mandates for the EU and US.”

Eustice also talked up the strength of the British farming industry, saying there should be “no more jangling nerves about our ability to compete”.

The discussion on standards comes as Eustice explained that the upcoming Agriculture Bill has been revamped to include a legal obligation on the government to assess the UK’s food security every five years. That includes a new obligation on government to consider the importance of food production and ensure food is produced in a sustainable way.

A further new element is the requirement for a multi-year plan, the first of which will cover the seven years of the agricultural transition, with five-yearly plans to follow after that. These are designed to set out how government intends to use the powers within the bill to deliver success for farmers, Eustice said.

A new British Agriculture policy is scheduled to be rolled out by the end of 2024, with three key components to cover environmental land management: a sustainable farming incentive; a local environment tier to incentivise interventions such as creating habitats, improving biodiversity and natural flood management; and a landscape tier that will support woodland creation and other land-use changes.

It’s clear that the food industry stands on the cusp of a new era, one that is either exciting or terrifying depending on your point of view. Batters said the farming industry’s glass will be half full – provided government sticks to its promises.

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