What does the new Agriculture Bill mean for British food standards?


Back in May, a coalition made up of environmental, farming and animal welfare organisations attempted to safeguard the future of the UK’s food standards. Led by the National Farmers Union, they wrote to all 650 MPs.

In the letter they urged the Commons to ensure all food imports, post-Brexit, meet the high standards of animal welfare and environmental protection currently in place for British producers.

Unfortunately the coalition failed, and the amendment which would have secured high standards for future imports was defeated by 328 to 277 votes – a majority of 51.

Now, if passed, many have raised their concerns that this legislation will be disastrous for both public health, and the UK’s farming industry. Some argue that British farmers will be unable to compete with imports that have lower standards, and are significantly cheaper as a result.

Backing British farmers, TV Chef Jamie Oliver, has also made a public appeal to raise awareness. The restaurateur addressed the Prime Minister himself. He argued that the Conservative Party is drawing a path that will undermine public health and the livelihoods of British producers.

The Bill will have its second reading in the House of Lords (HoL) today. It is hoped that the Bill will receive proper scrutiny in this chamber and not be ‘rushed and stifled’ as it was through the Commons.

Food standards before Brexit

Before Brexit came into the picture, it was widely perceived that the UK set particularly high ethical and safety standards for agriculture, livestock and food production. This is not entirely true. While it ranks in category A, along with Switzerland, Austria and New Zealand, the UK’s food production industry has many shortcomings.

In the UK a shocking 42% of hens are still kept in cages the size of an A4 sheet of paper, unable to move and severely overcrowded. One tactic used to deal with pecking due to this overcrowding is the practice of debeaking. This is the partial amputation of beaks, which the UK legally permits.On top of this, less than 3.5% of broiler chickens are free range, and less than 1% are organic.

Meanwhile, 70% of UK pigs experience tail docking, and restrictive farrowing crates are imposed in pregnant sows for 4-6 weeks, before, during and after pregnancy. This is illegal in Norway, Switzerland and Sweden. It is also estimated that up to 20% of cows are housed indoors their whole lives.

That being said, the UK does have The Food Safety Act 1990 which is the primary piece of legislation protecting food standards. This outlines regulations ensuring consumer protection and food safety including:

  • The assurance that businesses do not include “anything in food, remove anything from food, or treat food” in “any way” that would lead to the consumer’s health being damaged
  • The guarantee that the food businesses “serve or sell” is of the “nature, substance, or quality” expected by the consumer
  • The prevention of food being “labelled” or “advertised” and “presented” in a false or misleading way

This legislation was accompanied by the General Food Regulations and the Food Safety Act 1990 (Amendment) Regulations in 2004, which further bolstered UK food standards.

Contrastingly, the US has animal welfare and food safety standards that have been dubbed as “woefully inadequate” and “backward” by the likes of former Farming Minister George Eustice.

The typical example used to display the FDA’s poor food standards is the washing of chickens in chlorine. This is used as a cleaning method, due to the chicken’s poor living conditions.

However, a study by Southampton University, published in the US journal mBio, found that even after a chlorine wash, bacilli such as listeria and salmonella were still present and active. The FDA also permits synthetic hormone-reared beef. Both are banned in the UK.

However, it’s not just chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef that are the issue here. These two examples show a glimpse of what UK food policy can expect to be faced with if it turns its back on upholding importation regulations. If it does, the UK may see genetic modification, weakened pesticide rules, and meat pumped with hormones and antibiotics worked into the food chain.

What did the amendment outline?

Seeking to uphold British standards for import, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Chair, Neil Parish tabled an amendment to the Agriculture Bill. The amendment, New Clause 2, outlined that all future trade deals should either meet or exceed the UK’s current standards for food production, animal welfare and the environment.

Calling on the government to preserve current import standards, MP Neil Parish said: “The evidence the committee heard this week highlighted that the negotiation of new free trade deals present exciting opportunities to uphold and even boost our high production standards, but the government must ensure that consumer preferences for environmentally-friendly and humanely produced foods are respected”.

He added: “Lowering food production standards should not be a bargaining chip to be used in future trade deals – allowing imports to be produced in ways that are illegal here would severely undercut British farmers”.

When the amendment was defeated thousands of farmers, environmentalists and animal welfare groups expressed their disappointment.

Outlining the consequences of the HoC vote, President of NFU Cymru stated that without this amendment, the Bill lacks any formal requirement to “uphold our farming production standards” as the UK enters trade negotiations.

He added: “The bill should ensure that agri-food imports are produced to at least equivalent environmental, animal welfare and food safety standards as those required of producers in the UK”.

Campaign to change the bill

Undeterred by the HoC defeat, campaign groups have continued to lobby MPs and the HoL, insisting that the issue must be addressed. Joining forces with the campaign group, TV Chef Jamie Oliver wrote an open letter to PM Boris Johnson inside the Daily Mail and via video. He argued that the Prime Minister has the power to stop the Bill going through unamended.

Further to this, he stated that when the Conservative Party voted against the amendment to safeguard standards, this was “inconsistent” with what the party had discussed in the past. He goes on to say that this indicates that the party “wanted to clear the decks to snap-grab trade deals”. Adding to this, he outlined that if food standards are weakened a “race to the bottom will ensue,” and this is a race he fears the UK will not win.

Also campaigning for changes to the Bill is Sustain, an alliance that pushes for better food standards. Speaking to Sky News about the potentially devastating impact the unamended Bill could have, Vicki Hird, from Sustain said: “What we could see is our farmers having to compete with lower standard imports”. She added: “Or we’ll see a weakening of those standards in order that they can compete, and society does not want lower standards”.

Many hope that the House of Lords will rigorously scrutinise the Bill and highlight the serious consequences it will have on British food standards. Reflecting on this, George Dunn,TFA Chief Executive, said: “The House of Lords is usually a good place for the level of scrutiny required to get into the detail of this Bill, but it must be given the time and space to play that important role”.

He added: “The government is keen to get this legislation on the statute book before the end of the summer as a clear signal of departure from our past involvement with the EU. However, we must not let political point scoring or misplaced virtue signalling to hijack the work needed to produce good legislation”.

The debate will commence later today, and with so much at stake, the chamber could be the UK’s last hope for preserving British food standards.

Article Created By Madaline Dunn