BIRMINGHAM, England (Reuters) - The lure of trade deals with countries such as the United States will test the “moral compass” of some in Britain’s government but food safety and animal welfare standards must not be compromised, the UK farmers’ union chief said on Tuesday.
National Farmers Union President Minette Batters said it was absolutely vital that a specialist body of experts be set up to oversee trade regulations on agriculture and food, and that they are empowered through legislation.
“I think many in government support it but I think there are challenges around the Department of International Trade,” Batters said at the NFU’s annual conference.
Britain is hoping to secure its own trade deals with potential partners such as the United States for the first time in decades now it has left the European Union, but food safety and animal welfare standards diverge markedly.
For example, the United States allows antimicrobial washes to be used on poultry to kill harmful bacteria, while growth hormones can be used in the production of beef. Both are banned in the EU.
Batters also noted that battery cage egg production is still permitted in some countries but was banned in Britain in 2012, while in Japan, Australia, China, Canada, Brazil, Malaysia and India the use of antibiotics is permitted for growth promotion.
“To sign up to a trade deal which results in opening our ports, shelves and fridges to food which would be illegal to produce would not only be morally bankrupt, it would the work of the insane,” Batters said. “This goes wider than what’s good for farming. This is what is good for Britain.”
Asked about Batters’ remarks, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman said: “The UK has long been a world leader in food safety and animal welfare and we will continue to uphold our high food safety standards in all future trade deals.”
Johnson’s government is also trying to secure a deal on future trade ties with the EU, and the trading bloc is putting pressure on Britain to maintain its standards on issues such as food safety.
The EU’s negotiating mandate calls for any pact to uphold “common high standards, and corresponding high standards over time with (European) Union standards as reference point.”
“Standards feel as though they are dominating the conversation on trade and it is absolutely appropriate that they should,” Carolyn Fairbairn, Director General of the Confederation of British Industry business lobby group, told the NFU meeting.
In Brussels, EU ministers said the bloc was ready for talks on ties with Brexit Britain ranging from trade to security but the process would be “very hard” and could fail if London does not secure the Irish border as earlier agreed.
Additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Mark Heinrich