Chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef are off the menu for post-Brexit trade deals, though a government pledge not to allow such products into British supermarkets, restaurants or canteens falls short of demands for a legal ban.
A more significant announcement by the international trade secretary, Liz Truss, and the secretary for environment, food and rural affairs, George Eustice, was the revelation that the government will table an amendment to the agriculture bill this week to put the newly established trade and agriculture commission (TAC) on a statutory footing.
The move does not close the door on chlorinated chicken, which is emblematic of Brexit food fears, but it does add a layer of scrutiny to any trade deals, much-demanded by high-profile campaigners.
It is also a significant U-turn by the government, which had recently rejected Lord Curry’s amendment to strengthen the role of the TAC despite a huge campaign by farmers, environmental NGOs and the food industry, all concerned about a future US assault on the British food sector.
Sources say the change of heart came after a recent meeting between Boris Johnson and the formidable National Farmers’ Union president, Minette Batters, who recently said chlorinated chicken would become the norm if ministers were not given more power over trade deals.
She hailed the move to strengthen the TAC as a “landmark moment”, but concerns remain over future food standards after Brexit because of the lack of transparency at government level.
“These are all little baby steps at this stage. We have this language and pledges about chlorinated chicken, but we do not know what that actually means in trade policy terms,” said David Henig, the director of the UK Trade Policy Project.
The central problem is the lack of a formal and detailed trade policy on what is typically the most contested area in free trade negotiations.
Food and agriculture represent less than 10% of the British economy and exports will not feature high on the wishlist of trade negotiators, but access to the British food market will be the key driver for nations such as the US and Argentina, where grain and meat are central to their economies.
“We can make the case against chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef by going around the world saying ‘this is how we should do this’, but this is not how negotiations work,” said Henig.
“What we need is more than that. We need an actual trade policy. We still don’t have that. If it is going to be important to put animal welfare standards in our trade policy, then there has to be a debate about that in parliament, and we still haven’t had that. It’s not just that we don’t have legislation, we’re not at even at first base, which is having a trade policy.”
There is also concern that the so-called Crag process, covered by the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act, is a woefully inadequate for international trade deals.
Critics say three weeks is scarcely enough time to examine trade deals, which can run to thousands of pages laden with technical detail.
The government’s food tsar, Henry Dimbleby, has called for a parliamentary scrutiny process more robust than Crag, arguing trade deals should be treated like legislation, with full parliament debates and select committee reviews.
Batters made the point at the Tory party conference that ministers could make as many pledges as they liked, but could then turn to “secondary legislation on any day of the week effectively to change it”.
Those with knowledge of the government’s change of heart, however, say putting the TAC on a statutory footing is “definitely a meaningful step”.
They say that even before the Crag process begins, the TAC will get confidential privileged access to the trade deals before they are laid before parliament.
This means if a trade deal does open the door to chlorinated chicken, for example, the independent body can raise a red flag and warn MPs before the start of the 21-day scrutiny process.