Kath Dalmeny, chief executive of Sustain, an association which advocates better food and farming policies and practices, said this looming prospect would require “vocal champions in government, and proper parliamentary scrutiny, to avoid Britain’s high food standards being undermined by new international trade deals, triggering a global race to the bottom”.
Dalmeny was responding to the country’s Parliamentary Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) ‘Trade in Food’ enquiry, in which the Committee is examining how a potential trade deal could affect farmers, food processors and consumers as part of preparations to leave the EU.
With the food and farming sector contributing some €122 bn (£108 bn) annually and employing around 3.9 million people, future trade arrangements must allow farmers and food processors to compete effectively.
However, Delmeny’s concerns stem from an absence of meaningful progress or organisation since the decision was made in last year’s referendum that sealed the UK’s fate.
She insisted, “There needs to be a plan, which at this time the UK seems to be seriously lacking”.
Horsemeat and salmonella
Sustain’s contribution to EFRA’s report highlighted additional concerns to be raised about the difference between UK food standards and those of other countries.
The UK’s food supply chain is generally well regulated and inspected but had to face the cloud of scrutiny as the horsemeat scandal, salmonella cases and antibiotic use cost the country billions.
Despite weathering the storm, Sustain highlighted food controls in other countries may not match up to UK quality controls, meaning unfair competition for UK businesses working to higher standards.
The meat supply chain is one example, in which other countries, such as Brazil may accept a less stringent hygiene standard in the production phase if contamination can be “cleaned up” at the end of the process via antibiotics, chemical treatment or food irradiation with inspections limited mainly to “end of pipe” testing for residues.
Currently, in the UK, the focus is more on reducing the risks of contamination along the supply chain, meaning less overall reliance on reckless use of antibiotics, an issue of international health concern.
According to Sustain, the move to World Trade Organisation rules made this issue more urgent.
As one of the three most likely trade options for the UK, any change would come at a time when UK standards and inspection bodies are already under severe pressure – a result of reduced resources for testing, inspection and border checks.
Figures from the UK’s trading standards services revealed an operating budget down to €140m (£124m) in 2016 compared to €240m (£213m) in 2009, with a consequent loss of some 50% trading standards staff.
Additionally, the Food Standards Agency reported insufficient funding to run the Food Crime Unit that was set up following the horsemeat scandal.
The report concludes that in future trading scenarios, the UK staying as close as possible to EU food standards, systems and institutions will be an advantage especially for UK food businesses ill-equipped to deal with major changes to standards of production, compliance, auditing and labelling.
“We want there to be a UK plan that deals clearly and holistically with governance, food standards, food security and trade issues,” said Dalmeny.
“We want there to be a vision for what the UK is seeking to achieve with food, farming and fishing and we want all forthcoming policy and new legislation to be accountable for contributing towards achieving that vision – for the benefit of public health, farmers, food and farming workers, food businesses, farm animals and the environment.”