Liam Fox’s trade deals come up against the reality of public opinion

18 April 2018

Eighty-two per cent of Brits would rather not have a trade deal with the US than sacrifice decent food standards. Only 8% would put a trade deal first. So says a new opinion poll conducted by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).

This is important because food standards will have to be sacrificed in a US-UK trade deal -the US has been crystal clear on this on numerous occasions. 

In fact, last week the US released its epic list of ‘trade barriers’ – regulations and standards which the US would like to sweep away from the EU. These ‘barriers’ will be top priority in any trade deal negotiations with the UK. And food standards are front and centre of what the US wants.

There’s a lot in here to be scared about. First the stuff we’re already aware of – the chlorine chicken and other meat rinsed in antimicrobial wash as an alternative to keeping and killing animals in healthy conditions. They also want to export meat from animals stuffed with hormones and steroids and ractopamine – allowing animals to be housed in overcrowded conditions so the animals never see the light of day or taste grass. The US also doesn’t like the EU’s cautious approach to endocrine disrupters in meat production: chemicals which mess with animals hormones and can cause cancer and birth defects.

Now some will argue, what’s the harm of this stuff – surely it’s for consumers to make their own choice about what they eat? Well the problem is partly that allowing such food into our market will inevitably drive down standards across the board (niche markets aside). But the second problem is that the US also doesn’t like labelling which would allow the consumer to make an informed choice. Their demands take a swipe at the way European countries are placing more detailed country of origin labelling on food goods, saying this will “impede market access for imported ingredients”. It’s also not fond on requirements to label nutritional content. They’re particularly unhappy about Ireland’s attempts to put more health-related information on alcoholic products – a potential threat to similar policies being tried out in Scotland.

The list goes on, with the US unhappy about prohibitions on food from cloned animals, live cow exports and biotech seeds and the EU’s cautious approach to approving genetically modified goods, the amount of white blood cells (and therefore usually pus) that can found in dairy products, chemical flavourings in food, and the amount of pesticide residue allowed in fruits and nuts. It’s also unhappy about the system of so-called ‘geographical indictors’ which mean, as one example, that Cornish pasties can only be made to certain standards in Cornwall and that whisky must be aged for a certain period of time before it can be called ‘whisky’. 

It doesn’t stop at food. The US loathes the EU regulation of chemicals, known as REACH, and we know will want the UK to adopt a different approach post-Brexit. The US also wants to export more biofuels – corn ethanol and soybeans for instance – even though industrial scale crops of biofuels have serious consequences on the environment and society. And it’s upset with the - really inadequate - power that European states have to make pharmaceutical corporations a little more transparent. This could have a detrimental impact on the already spiralling cost of patented drugs to the NHS.    

These items will all be on the table when US-UK trade talks start – indeed they may already be under discussion in Liam Fox’s pre-trade deal talks with the US. The group met two weeks ago and discussed, among other things, “services, investment, intellectual property rights and enforcement, regulatory issues.” That means all of the above. We’re not allowed to know any more than that because Fox’s trade discussions are secret, but we do know that Fox himself – the man in charge of our negotiators has no concerns about lower food standards.

If we want something different – and the majority of our fellow citizens apparently do – then we urgently need to get some democratic control over our trade policy. The Trade Bill will return to parliament soon. Let’s make sure we amend it. 



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