Analysis: Trade talks with the US have started, but fears about cheap chlorinated chicken just won’t go away

The UK and US governments started negotiating a UK-US Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in May. The International Trade Secretary Liz Truss and the US trade representative Robert Lighthizer launched negotiations via video conference call.

This first round of negotiations lasted two weeks and involved around 100 negotiators on each side. On the UK side, talks are being led by Oliver Griffiths, with all UK trade negotiations being overseen by Crawford Falconer, DIT’s chief trade negotiation adviser, formerly New Zealand’s chief negotiator and ambassador to the WTO.

Talks will cover all areas set out in the UK’s negotiation objectives, including goods and services trade, digital trade, investment and supporting SMEs. Further rounds will take place approximately every six weeks and will be carried out remotely until it is safe to travel. It is not new that concerns have been expressed over the likelihood such a deal will lead to either low or no tariff arrangements on agricultural goods.

The US has been clear in its ambitions. Chlorinated chicken is one example, eggs produced in battery cages is another. Such imports have the potential to undercut UK producers, and lead to a decline in the UK egg and poultry sectors. Truss, an advocate of free trade, insists such fears are unfounded. “The US is our largest trading partner and increasing transatlantic trade can help our economies bounce back from the economic challenge posed by coronavirus,” she says.

“The Prime Minister has been clear that we champion free trade and this deal will make it even easier to do business with our friends across the pond.”

Truss says Government analysis shows a UK-US FTA will benefit every region and nation of the UK, with the greatest benefits in Scotland, the North East and the Midlands. And she reiterated the Government would not allow products to be imported that fell below UK standards.

“The UK’s negotiating objectives make clear that we will continue uphold our high standards on food safety and animal welfare.” This commitment rang rather hollow on May 14, when an amendment to the Agriculture Bill put forward by EFRA chair Neil Parish, which would have written this into law, ensuring products such as chlorinated chicken could not be imported, was voted down 328 to 277 in the House of Commons.

Parish expressed disappointment, and a report in the Financial Times in the same week said Truss was, in fact, preparing to offer concessions on import standards in order to get a deal across the line before the end of the year, when the UK’s transitional arrangements with the EU end. Truss denies this.

Farmers expressed bitter disappointment at the result. “We are extremely deflated by the result of the House of Commons Agriculture Bill debate,” says Ivor Ferguson, president of the Ulster Farmers’ Union. “MPs have decided that the Bill remains fit for purpose and no amendments or improvement is needed. This logic has bewildered the entire UK farming community considering how the COVID-19 pandemic has emphasised the importance of local food production and food security.

“The MPs’ decision leaves UK agriculture in a very uncertain position. The fear remains that down the line our market could be flooded with imports produced to standards which would be illegal here, undermining our farmers and putting the entire farm family structure at risk.

“It’s a kick in the teeth to our primary producers who take pride in upholding the highest environmental, animal welfare and food safety standards, and we rely on them now more than ever. 

“It’s extremely concerning that the MPs’ vote concluded that it wasn’t essential to protect the hand that feeds them.”

NFU director of EU exit and international trade Nick von Westenholz added: “Farmers will be very concerned to hear that the UK Government is considering freeing up access to our market for food produced overseas, especially at a time when they are struggling to manage huge volatility caused by the coronavirus crisis.

“Any concessions UK negotiators give on market access – such as lower or zero tariffs on agricultural goods – must be accompanied by clear conditions on how those goods have been produced. Anything else would represent a clear breach of the Government’s own explicit red lines in trade negotiations, that it ‘will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards’.

“Furthermore, if the trade deal is going to have a net benefit for farmers, as has been promised, the UK Government needs to set out clearly what additional access has been granted by US negotiators which will, at a minimum, compensate for the loss of market at home.”

So concerned has The British Egg Industry Council (BEIC) been, it teamed up with Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) and the RSPCA, to issue a warning about the risk to British egg farming, saying the Government could be allowing in low welfare, battery-caged imported eggs produced to questionable safety standards for consumers.

And while the Government’s announcement that tariffs would be maintained was welcomed, these negotiations could involve scrapping them.

The BEIC, CIWF and RSPCA jointly wrote to Truss to explain their concerns and received the following response: “The Government has been clear that it remains firmly committed to upholding our high environmental, food safety and animal welfare standards after leaving the EU. The EU Withdrawal Act has transferred all EU food safety provisions on to the UK statute book, including the high standards underpinning the British egg sector.

“The Government also remains committed to promoting robust food safety standards nationally and internationally, to protect consumer interests, and to ensure that consumers can have confidence in the food they buy.

“The Government will stand firm in trade negotiations to ensure any future trade deals live up to the values of farmers, consumers, and businesses across the UK.

As set out in our manifesto, we will drive a hard bargain with all of our trading partners – and, as with all negotiations, we will be prepared to walk away if that is in the national interest. In developing our approach to future trade and upholding domestic standards, we are mindful of the importance processed eggs and similar products play in the market.”

But despite these reassurances, suspicions remain about what will ultimately be up for grabs when a deal is at stake.

Mark Williams, BEIC chief executive, said: “While we welcome the commitment to not compromise on high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards, this approach must also apply to imports, something which the Government fails to make clear in its response.

“We cannot allow the Government to operate double standards where UK farmers have to continue to produce to high standards, yet allow imports produced to lower or no standards at all – this would be a moral outrage for consumers and catastrophic for our farmers, supply chain and the UK’s reputation for high standards of welfare, environmental protection and producing safe food for consumers.”

Robert Gooch, chief executive of the British Free Range Egg Producers Association, said all eyes were now be on free trade deals where the tariff could be waived as part of the negotiations. “Egg producers will cautiously welcome this long-overdue commitment to retain the tariff on imported eggs and, in doing so, protect the world-leading standards of animal welfare, food safety and environmental care found on UK farms,” he said.

“BFREPA has consistently said that standards must not be undermined in trade deals. The tariffs are a step in the right direction but we will be watching closely to ensure this commitment is honoured when establishing new free trade agreements in the coming months.”

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