The big question: Would a US-UK trade deal damage food and environmental standards in the UK?

27th March 2019

P27 big question

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  • Agriculture ,
  • Food and drink ,
  • Marine ,
  • Ecosystems ,
  • EU


Peter Taylor

James Angel, Rob Percival and Victoria Hewson discuss how food and environmental standards in the UK would be affected by a US-UK trade deal

James Angel,

Policy and campaigns manager, Global Justice Now

“US agriculture has long been frustrated by EU food standards“

The politicians who will soon start negotiating a US-UK trade agreement primarily see food and environmental standards as a 'barrier' to free trade. The release of the US's objectives for the deal offers a glimpse of what this might mean.

US agricultural firms have long been frustrated by EU food standards, which restrict high-intensity, high-chemical and low animal welfare US exports. That's why US negotiators are setting out to 'eliminate practices that unfairly decrease US market access'. The US sees a post-Brexit trade deal as an opportunity for 'regulatory cooperation' – the relaxation of UK environmental and food regulations to match US standards. Public health and environment risks would be far-reaching, from the failure of chlorine washing to kill listeria and salmonella to the compounding of antibiotic resistance through their use on livestock.

What's more, a US-UK deal would likely include a secretive system of private arbitration known as 'investor state dispute settlement' (ISDS). This allows multinationals to sue governments in international tribunals to challenge measures that curb their profits. ISDS proceedings in previous trade deals have been used by firms to challenge policies designed to preserve food and environmental standards.

Rob Percival,

Head of policy (food and health), Soil Association

“US antibiotics use in livestock is five times higher than in the EU“

The UK government has made commitments to high environmental and animal welfare standards, but these may be undermined by a US trade deal, which could lead to a 'race to the bottom' if British farmers are forced to compete on price. Cheap food imports could undermine farmer profitability, leading to lower food quality, environmental protection and animal welfare standards.

Chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-treated beef in the US are emblematic of lower animal welfare and hygiene standards. The percentage of people who fall ill with food poisoning in the US is 10 times higher than it is in the UK. In the EU, genetically modified (GM) products are widely rejected, while pesticides are held to high environmental standards and antibiotic use in livestock is closely regulated. Meanwhile, 88% of US corn is GM, US lobbyists consistently push for lower environmental health standards, and antibiotics use is five times higher than in the EU. The US also considers nutrition labelling a barrier to trade.

British citizens don't want chlorine-washed chicken, ractopamine-fed pork or hormone-treated beef. The Soil Association is calling on the government to offer reassurance that our standards will be protected post-Brexit, and not undercut by a trade deal with the US.

Victoria Hewson,

Senior counsel, Institute of Economic Affairs

“There is a lot of misinformation about US food“

A UK-US trade deal could: establish strong environment obligations; establish rules to ensure the UK does not fail to enforce environmental laws; promote sustainable fisheries management and conservation of marine species; and protect and conserve flora, fauna and ecosystems. Each party can set for itself the protection it believes appropriate to protect food safety and plant and animal health.

These are some of US's objectives for its potential free trade agreement (FTA) with the UK. In fact, there is much more on the environment, labour rights, anti-corruption and protection of preference programmes for small businesses and women and minority-owned businesses, much of which will be more welcome to readers of TRANSFORM than it is to free trade supporters at the IEA.

There is a lot of misinformation about US food. Chlorine-washed chicken is safe, and US rates of salmonella and campylobacter are in line with European levels. Shielding agriculture from scientific advances that increase efficient land use is at odds with sustainability.

In an FTA, a country can maintain regulations to suit its policy priorities. Allowing our farmers to compete alongside their US counterparts would be good for them, good for the environment and good for consumers.


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