Comment: The government’s tariffs on egg imports are welcome, but they could still be traded away

By Mark Williams, chief executive, British Egg Industry Council

The UK Government has decided to retain import tariffs on eggs and egg products as part of the UK’s Global Tariff Policy (UKGTP). The BEIC, along with our allies, CIWF (Compassion in World Farming), and RSPCA have welcomed the news. A long and sustained campaign of lobbying UK Government Ministers, backbench, and opposition MPs, as well as devolved administrations, backed up by the BEIC commissioned independent economic evidence, has paid off.

When the Government published its Temporary Tariff Regime in response to the increasingly likely possibility of a  no-deal Brexit in March 2019, the BEIC along with the rest of British farming and agriculture reacted furiously at proposals to completely eliminate import tariffs on a number of agri-foods, including eggs and egg products. Once the threat of a no-deal Brexit began to dissipate, and the Department for International Trade (DIT) announced plans to consult on new the UKGTP the BEIC was incredibly concerned that the Temporary Tariff Regime had set the direction of travel in terms of policy.

The BEIC were of the view that even though Ministers and officials at Defra were broadly sympathetic to our position and gave assurances that they would seek to defend our interests on this issue, there appeared to be a division between Defra and DIT. It was widely perceived that the latter was primarily concerned with striking free trade deals with countries outside of the EU and gave little or no consideration to supporting British farmers and food producers, the nation’s ultimate food champions.

The decision by DIT to keep the eight tariff lines currently in place, ranging from eggs in shell, liquid / frozen whole egg, including yolk, albumin and dried albumen and yolk, except for a small marginal reduction of 31% to 29%, was a relief to the British egg industry. Currently, these are set at a level which considers the higher cost of egg production in the UK, because of legislation on animal welfare, food safety and environmental protection. A cost not carried by other countries outside of the EU.

We emphasised our message that until national legislation and trade agreements are in place to protect these standards, maintaining the current tariffs on eggs and egg products are the only way to prevent countries with systems of production that are illegal in the UK from undermining this country’s greatest agricultural success story, the British egg industry.

Despite this good news, we will not be complacent, however. We will be watching how the Government will balance the benefits of liberalising trade and opening up opportunities for more exports abroad, while meeting its responsibilities for promoting sustainable farming, and addressing the issue of food imports that would be illegal to produce here. This includes eggs and egg products from laying hens kept in conventional ‘battery’ cages, a system of production that was outlawed in the UK and throughout the EU in 2012.

The BEIC along with other industry allies supports calls to establish a Trade, Food and Farming Standards Commission to deal with exactly these issues. This Commission should include representatives from government, industry, environmental and animal welfare NGOs and consumer groups, as well as academics on trade and food policy. It would look at the policies and processes needed to ensure that food sold in the UK meets the same standards as those required of UK producers, including on the environment and animal welfare, and the ways of defining what those standards are and how best to compare them with overseas producers. It would also consider what ongoing role, either for the Commission or another body, is required to scrutinise ongoing trade negotiations and the terms of trade deals. Fundamentally, it would look to develop constructive solutions to promote free trade while upholding our standards. Indeed, it would be at the forefront of an international drive towards a more sustainable model of free trade that would demonstrate real substance to the Global Britain brand.

The Government has said food production and farming standards will not be compromised in future free trade negotiations. We will be doing all we can to ensure this promise is kept, and that the Government backs the British egg industry in trade talks.

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