Farming Minister Victoria Prentis has urged farmers to take the Government at its word over import standards in future trading arrangements.
Speaking at the online Cereals Live event, she confirmed there is no appetite in Government to legislate on the issue or to introduce a food standards commission, despite calls for clear action on the issue from MPs, food and farming, organisations, environmental and animal welfare NGOs, the media and the public.
The NFU’s food standards petition now has more than 930,000 signatures, boosted by recent support from celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and a campaign by the Daily Mail.
NFU president Minette Batters said the ‘extraordinary’ and unprecedented support for the petition in the space of just a fortnight highlighted the strength of public feeling on the issue. In addition, around 72,000 emails have been sent from members of the public to MP on the subject.
“This petition is about magnifying our ask to Government around food standards and making sure imports that come into this country are, where possible, produced to the same standards. It is not just about food safety, but methods of production,” she said.
“This about real people who really care about food standards and want to make sure our farmers are not undermined. It just shows how strongly members of the public feel and how we have got to get this right.”
She highlighted how UK farmers were ‘already very undermined’ by product coming into the country not produced to the standards farmers need to comply with here. For example, while the EU ban on neonicotinoids is turning oilseed rape into a niche crop in the UK, non-EU imports of crops produced with the seed treatment are still coming into the country in large volumes.
She stressed that the NFU would continue to push for an amendment in the Agriculture Bill that paves the way for a food standard commission that would ensure food standards are upheld in future trade deals. “This is essential, but we are having to fight hard to get it in place,” she said.
‘Legislation not the answer’
Ms Prentis, speaking at a later online press briefing, said it was ‘right that we talk about food standards’, but claimed the ‘conflation with the current Brexit conversation has really confused this argument’.
“Yes, we need to talk about what we are eating and drinking and where it comes from and whether we are outsourcing ‘environmental bads’, if you like.
“Do we have to talk about food standards? Yes. Do we have a regulatory regime, for example on hormone beef and chlorine washed chicken, below which we have said we will not go? Yes. Do we need to include other standards? Very probably in the future.
“But the place to have this screaming argument is not, in my view, in the context of a domestic bill, which is trying to do good things to the future of British agriculture.
“It is quite wrong to export environmental bads. But we cannot do everything in this bit of primary legislation.”
Asked by Farm Business how the Government would ensure standards are upheld in the absence of legislation, given the US position of demanding the removal of current ‘unscientific’ EU restrictions and trade tariffs as a pre-requisite of UK-US deal, Ms Prentis added:
“I don’t think legislation is the answer to this at all. We are negotiating with the US and have just done the fourth round of negotiations with the EU. In both cases, we are trying to be as transparent as possible, given that these are live and very sensitive negotiations.
“With the US, we have got our manifesto commitment. We have got our stated policy. We have got the letter from George Eustice and Liz Truss. And we have a really good and detailed list of what we want to get out of these negotiations,” she said.
“With the EU, similarly, we provide really regular updates. I can’t give you any more than verbal assurances – and a manifesto and a written document that sets out our negotiating position. Every Conservative MP has stood on the same manifesto with the same lines in it. So what more can we possibly do?
“Legislation is broadly there to stop people doing things. It is broadly domestic. What I can’t do is legislate what happens on American farms, and nor should I.
“We have sad that that is our position, so I don’t think you are going to budge me on that. I am a Defra Minister and I am very, very proud of our high standards and our regulatory regime in this county and, yes, there is more to do.
“But primary legislation is just not the place for giving assurances. That has to be done politically. We have a politically accountable democratic system. There are ways of holding Government to account and I am not going to apologise for standing up for high standards. Definitely not.”
She also rejected Mrs Batters’ calls for a food standards commission, which former Defra Secretary Michael Gove had indicated the Government would support when he was in the post. Ms Prentis said it was not necessary, given that there are already existing routes for industry concerns to be fed into trade deal negotiations.