Secretary for International Trade, Liz Truss, believes a free trade deal between the UK and Australia can be agreed and signed quickly, and she’s said that she’d “cross any road for a trade deal”. Similarly, Australian High Commissioner George Brandis said in response that his country is ready to begin trade negotiations with the UK as soon as Brexit is resolved. However, leaked documents from the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) make it clear that food standards are at risk through future free trade deals and could cause “irreparable damage”.

Currently, Australian total exports to the UK are worth £6.7 billion. Given the historical connection, the common language and the mature market, it is easy to see why a post-Brexit trade agreement with Australia would be so desirable. Part of the reason why trade in agriculture products between Australia and the UK has not been higher in the past, is the regulatory differences between the two countries. Currently, as a member of the EU, there exists significant legal barriers that prohibit specific Australian food products from entering the UK market, in particular hormone-treated beef.

Unlike the potential trade deal with the US, the negotiations with Australia haven’t received much press attention. Yet, the potential food safety risks from imported food that has been produced to a lower standard is just as critical in a future deal with Australia, as it would be to a free-trade deal with America. Top on the agenda for Australian officials post-Brexit will be opening up the UK market to hormone-treated beef. Australia has been pushing to have hormone-treated beef included in any future trade deal with the UK. Lifting the ban is a key issue for the Australians. The current export market of Australian beef is £2.6 billion and Canberra hopes to take advantage of Brexit to increase its market share in the UK.

In Australia, cattle producers use hormones because they allow animals to grow larger more quickly on less feed, thus reducing production costs. However, the practice is highly controversial and has significant public health risks and animal welfare concerns since evidence suggests that the hormone treatment is carcinogenic. Currently, the import of beef that has been treated with hormones into the UK (or any other EU nation) is banned under EU law and has been banned since 1989. The 2003 EU scientific review concluded that the hormone estradiol-17β was carcinogenic and that there was insufficient data to adequately assess the health risks of five other common beef hormones. As a result, the EU amended the ban to permanently exclude estradiol-17β and provisionally ban the five other hormones.

Just like Australia, the United States has long disputed the evidence that suggests that hormone treatments are carcinogenic. To this end, the US brought a successful World Trade Organization (WTO) case against the EU in 1998. The EU initially paid a retaliatory tariff to the US to maintain the ban. In 2009, the EU moved to allow some imports of high-quality (non-hormone treated) US beef under a tariff-rate quota and the US tariff was suspended. In 2017, the US took steps to reinstate retaliatory tariffs, which are ongoing.

Allowing Australian beef into the UK market poses an issue for the UK consumer. A 2018 Which? Brexit tracker survey found that UK consumers strongly reject the idea of cattle being treated with growth hormones. The survey measured consumer perspectives towards leaving the European Union and found that 80% of respondents said that they were not at all comfortable with growth hormones in beef production, while 79% said that they were not comfortable with hormones being used to increase milk yields in dairy cows. These findings show a strong indication of what the public want to see in any future trade deals – maintenance of high UK food safety and animal welfare standards.

UK farmers would also be significantly impacted if a free trade deal lowered food safety standards, despite Liz Truss insisting to the Spectator that British farmers can compete. Large, industrial transnational producers are able to produce food cheaply due to the differences in regulation and economies of scale. If these companies are suddenly allowed market access, industrial food could flood the UK without restraint. This could potentially have disastrous consequences for UK farmers who would be substantially undercut on price – a price difference that could be exacerbated by the fact that UK farmers might incur extra cost to produce food to a higher environmental standard following the adoption of a new farming subsidy scheme post-Brexit.

Whether it’s hormone-treated beef or the infamous chlorine-washed chicken, it is critical that all future bilateral trade agreements maintain the highest food safety standards. Ministers promised that UK standards on animal welfare and the environment wouldn’t be slashed post-Brexit and allowing hormone-treated beef would go entirely against that. Liz Truss has insisted that the Government would “walk away” from negotiations if a trade deal was “going to alter domestic standards for the sake of trade deals”. But that promise must now be held to account and we must remain vigilant to ensure that future trade deals do not allow food that has been produced to a lower safety (and some might say quality) standard into the UK market, undercutting UK farmers.

Consequently, the SFT has been advocating that any future free trade deal maintains a level playing field and guarantees the highest food safety standards. As we approach a General Election, it is critical that all political parties commit to ensuring that that the UK Government cannot enter into any international trade agreements that allow food to be imported into the UK which does not meet the UK’s standards on food safety, environmental protection and animal welfare. We have asked that all parties include such a commitment within their manifesto on international trade standards and we will continue to follow developments once the new Government returns to Westminster.

We will continue to advocate for the highest animal welfare and environmental standards for the future of UK food and farming and will keep our readers apprised of any developments as Brexit ticks ever onwards.

Read more about a future US/UK trade deal here.

Read the SFT’s Manifesto for Food and Farming here.

Photograph: Andrew Wallace

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