Farmers and environmental campaigners are combing through the details of a new trade deal with Australia that some fear could lead to lower standard food imports entering the UK market.
The government announced the agreement in principle on Tuesday which will remove tariffs and quotas on food traded between the two nations over a 15-year period.
It means UK products such as Scotch whisky and confectionery will be cheaper to sell in Australia. International trade secretary Liz Truss said the agreement would also pave the way for the UK to join the £9tn trans-pacific partnership free trade area.
The announcement provoked an immediate backlash from environmental groups who claimed the deal meant the UK government had broken its own manifesto commitment to protect British food standards.
The National Farmers Union (NFU), meanwhile, said it needed to understand whether safeguards in the deal were sufficient and able to be deployed effectively so as not to undermine UK farming.
Australia allows certain practices such as sow stalls, barren battery cages and hormone-fed beef that are banned in the UK. However, a subsequent government document released on Thursday detailing the agreement said that imports would still have to meet the same respective UK and Australian food safety and biosecurity standards. The government said that imports of hormone-treated beef, for example, would continue to be banned.
The agreement also includes provisions that affirm Australia and the UK’s right to regulate on animal welfare and effectively enforce their domestic environmental laws.
It is as yet unclear whether there are loopholes that could allow lower standard imported meat products in particular to enter the UK market in future. For example, one clause requires “recognition of the importance of ensuring that respective Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) measures are based on scientific principles”. As a recent member of the EU, the UK currently applies the precautionary principle whereby activities are avoided where the risk is unclear, however other countries require evidence that activities present a risk to human health, safety, or the environment before taking regulatory action.
It has long been feared that foodservice is the most likely destination for lower-quality imported meat due to cost sensitivities and a lack of origin labelling requirements.
The deal will see a cap on tariff-free imports of Australian beef and lamb for 15 years using tariff rate quotas and other safeguards before their full removal. Tariffs on sugar will be eliminated over eight years and those on dairy over five years. UK tariffs for pigs, poultry and eggs from Australia have not yet been determined.
MPs have also expressed concern that the government’s independent trade and agriculture commission (TAC) has been ignored in the negotiation of the trade agreement.
The environment, food and rural affairs committee (EFRA) noted that the TAC’s creation had provided the British farming sector with reassurance that the government would engage with farmers’ and food producers’ concerns about the potential weakening of the UK’s environmental and animal welfare standards when negotiating trade deals.
In a letter to Truss, the committee expressed disappointment that the government has yet to respond to recommendations made by the body that included a call to match tariff-free market access to relevant climate, environment, animal welfare and ethical standards.