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Brexit: Food Standards

Volume 799: debated on Wednesday 4 September 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they will ensure that food imports after Brexit meet the same animal welfare, environmental and food safety standards as those required of food from British farmers.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. This country has high food safety standards, and these will continue. We will remain global leaders in environmental protection and animal welfare standards, maintaining our high-quality produce for British consumers. The withdrawal Act will transfer on to the UK statute book all EU food safety, environmental and animal welfare standards. Our current high standards, including import requirements, will apply when we leave.

My Lords, I also declare my interests as a farmer, as in the register, and thank the Minister for his reply. The Government have consistently said that they will not allow our food standards to be undermined by future trade deals, such as that proposed with the United States of America. This is reassuring, but regardless of any future trade deals, how do they propose to do this in light of the no-deal applied tariff schedule published last March? That would mean slashing tariffs on many agricultural goods, to zero in the case of eggs and cereals. How will the Government keep out goods produced to lower standards, especially as to do so on grounds of animal welfare and environmental harm would almost certainly breach our obligations under the WTO terms?

My Lords, as I referred to briefly in my opening remarks, we will retain all current UK import requirements. Existing UK import standards will apply. The level of a tariff does not change what can and cannot be imported. WTO rules allow WTO members to adopt and maintain trade-restrictive measures on specified public policy grounds, including the protection of human, animal and plant life and health, public morals and conservation.

My Lords, surely the question here is why the noble Lord did not respond to the point about tariffs. It is the tariffs that will destroy farming activity in this country, because the exports will be open to others, as currently arranged, and the costs will be passed on to consumers. Why have the Government not brought forward the statutory instruments required to put these in place?

My Lords, perhaps I am the one who is confused. I have made it absolutely clear that all the EU import requirements will remain, irrespective of the tariff regime. The noble Lord shakes his head but that is the truth. It will be the law. All the EU import requirements will continue and that is the precise point I am making. This is why the consumer is secure. All of these elements cannot be imported unless they have the standards currently in place.

My Lords, my noble friend will recall that a government amendment in the name of my noble friend Lady Fairhead was carried enhancing just these protections in the Trade Bill, which is currently still before the House of Commons. What is the fate of that Bill for rollover agreements? If it falls, will the Government be minded to ensure that this will be part of government policy?

My Lords, the first part of my noble friend’s question might be above my pay grade, but I am absolutely clear—this is government policy—that all the requirements we are taking over will continue, including, as I emphasised, all the import requirements, whether for products of animal origin or high-risk, non-animal origin products. I have a long list of them. That is precisely why I believe we will continue with our very high standards.

My Lords, I will pursue the issue of the WTO regulations. I am advised that the WTO says that there will be no tariffs on agricultural products. Have the Government had proper legal advice that that will not apply to the UK if we leave without a deal and that it certainly will not apply to us in relation to the United States?

My Lords, particularly with animal welfare and agriculture, legal requirements that prevent the import of certain animal products will continue. Indeed, that is justified under Article XX of GATT. All imports of meat products must meet UK animal welfare slaughter requirements and come from an approved slaughterhouse. The Government have made it clear that the existing health and food safety restrictions on hormone treatment, antibiotics and chlorinated chicken will remain in place.

My Lords, given the plethora of health identification marks that will be needed for food products of animal origin should the UK exit the EU without a deal, there is considerable concern about the impact this will have on small farmers and producers. The larger conglomerates will manage, but the smallholders will struggle. What are the Government doing to ensure the public and farmers are protected from this confusion?

My Lords, obviously, as policy develops in future Parliaments and so forth, it will be very important, indeed essential, to look at labelling. We want, and it is our duty, to make sure that labelling is transparent and that the consumer knows what is required. We want to work with farmers on this—we want it to be a success for farmers, producers and consumers. That is why, as I said, the Government will be looking at vulnerable agricultural sectors and others, because small farmers—farmers of all sizes—are hugely important to our excellent food production.

Did the Minister not admit in this House some months ago, notwithstanding what he said, that animal products, particularly eggs, that do not meet our standards will be on sale in this country? He said, “Oh, they’ll be labelled to say they don’t meet our standards. They’ll be cheaper than ours, but they don’t meet our standards”. Does he now resile from what he told the House back in the summer?

I know what the noble Lord is referring to. Indeed, in my letter to him of 8 May, I made very clear the distinction between all the elements we are bringing over on sanitary requirements for eggs and marketing standards. That is the precise point: we will mirror everything to do with the sanitary and marketing standards that are currently in place during our membership of the EU. At the moment, eggs under marketing standard requirements can come into the EU, but if they are not up to the marketing standards—not sanitary standards—they have to be marked as “non-EU standard”. We will mirror that by marking them as “non-UK standard”.