Bid to maintain UK food standards in future trade deals fails

Conservative rebels had tried to block ‘chlorinated chicken’ and hormone injected beef in post-Brexit deals.

UK cow - reuters
UK consumers have reported concerns about the import of hormone-injected beef and chlorine-washed chicken [File photo/David Moir/Reuters]

British cuisine may not have the best reputation among either the world’s culinary elite or self-professed “foodies”, but the United Kingdom has long insisted on regulatory standards that outlaw some practices deemed harmful which are carried out by mass producers elsewhere in the world.

After concerns that the push for post-Brexit trade deals would see UK officials make concessions in food productions standards with its international partners, allowing chlorine-washed chicken from the United States to enter British markets, for example, a group of Conservative rebels launched a bid to guarantee future imports could only match or exceed current rules.

On Wednesday, that bid failed.

Simon Hoare and Neil Parish, from Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s governing Conservative party, led the parliamentary push for the Agriculture Bill, which would have required a level playing field between British farmers and those overseas in future trade agreements after the UK quit the European Union-wide Common Agricultural Policy.

The amendment was defeated by just 51 votes, 328-277, although officials noted some MPs had mistakenly voted the wrong way via the new electronic system. This would not have affected the result, they added.

Parish, chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, told MPs it was “time for us to stand and be counted” and support such measures.

He said: “I would say quite clearly to the Secretary of State for Trade [Liz Truss] she should actually spend her time going out and dealing with a trade deal that has equivalence and makes sure we actually export our very important animal and environmental welfare.

“And I’d say to the Americans, why don’t you upgrade your production? Why don’t you reduce the density of population of your chicken? Why don’t you reduce the amount of antibiotics you’re using and then you can actually produce better chicken not only for America, it can also come into this country.”

But environment minister Victoria Prentis insisted all EU import standards will be converted into domestic law by the end of the December 2020 transition period.

She told the Commons: “This will include a ban on using artificial growth hormones in beef. Nothing apart from potable water may be used to clean chicken carcasses, and any changes to these standards would have to come before this Parliament.

Conservative former Trade Secretary Liam Fox warned the US “would walk” in free trade talks if an amendment calling for food imports to match the UK’s “high standards” were to become law in the UK.

Records showed 22 Conservative MPs supported the amendment, in theory rebelling, although they included Chancellor Rishi Sunak – who made a mistake in the voting process and was not staging a shock bid to depart the government.

Sunak re-joined his Conservative colleagues on the next vote to defeat a Labour bid for the government to publish a coronavirus emergency food plan.

A source close to the chancellor – the British name for the nation’s finance minister – blamed “online teething problems with the system”, adding: “The chancellor did not intentionally vote against the government. He called the chief whip straight away to explain.”

The UK’s Parliament has been sitting with reduced numbers of MPs allowed in the chamber of the House of Commons, with others joining online. It has led to a stark change of atmosphere for debates, with the usually boisterous Prime Minister’s Questions sessions adopting a tone more akin to a courtroom – a shift which appears to have suited the inquisitional approach of opposition Labour party leader Keir Starmer, the country’s former director of public prosecutions.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons and a leading figure in the party’s eurosceptic wing, has called for all MPs to return to the chamber from the beginning of June in order “to set an example” to the rest of the country.

Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle, however, rebuffed Rees-Mogg’s call, saying: “The only changes on the guidance can come from Public Health England, I think we are all agreed on that.

“I may suspend sittings between items of business to allow members to enter and exit the chamber. I am also quite prepared to suspend a sitting if I believe that the safe number of honourable members in the chamber risks being exceeded.”

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies