The interconnection between UK food and farming, and EU laws and regulations frequently makes headline news. Be it issues of metric over imperial measurements; Spanish fishing vessels in the British channel; or the persistent myth that the EU banned wonky bananas.
Nonetheless, EU rules have also helped address some of the UK’s most significant food safety issues- such as BSE in the 1990s; foot and mouth in the early 2000s; and the horsemeat scandal in 2013. It is through EU initiatives, such as the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF), that Member States are now able to avoid instances, such as those in relation to horsemeat, from reoccurring. Such promotes consumer confidence in UK-EU exported and imported produce.
However, the question of what happens in terms of food standards and trade post-Brexit remains to be answered. Michael Gove, DEFRA Secretary of State, addressed the National Farmers’ Union last month on food and farming after Brexit. Within his speech he clearly stated that there were no guarantees that UK farmers would be able to continue to trade with the EU in the event of no deal being agreed. Should the UK become a third-party country (in leaving the EU without a deal, and have to trade under WTO rules) the potential EU export tariffs on UK produce could potentially be as high as 45% on lamb, 70% on beef, and up-to 100% for some cuts.
Concerns Over Food Trade
The impact of leaving the EU without a trade deal would have a catastrophic effect on the UK’s largest GDP industries. The latest available statistics show that UK food and drink industries exported £16.4 billion worth of produce in 2018.
Of this £10.2 billion, or 62%, was to other EU countries. Last year export growth to EU markets increased (whilst exports to non-EU markets declined). Furthermore, seven out of the top ten export markets for the UK are EU Member States.
Whilst EU imports to the UK makeup an even larger portion of trade (largely driven by the service industries) should the UK leave the EU without a deal, UK farmers will be amongst the worst hit industries- in terms of barriers to trade with their key target markets.
In December 2018, The EU initially agreed to an apportionment of goods free of tariffs, or at a reduced rate tariff (subject to quotas), with the UK. However, this is subject to a Brexit deal being reached. This agreement is also expected to be challenged by the likes of the USA, Australia and New Zealand for being too favourable and generous to the UK (as a non-Member State). It was not until March 2019 that the UK Government provided any clarity over how these rates would be reciprocated, in terms of produce being imported from the EU.
Concerns Over Food Standards
Baroness McIntosh recently remarked how the UK is recognised as having world leading standards of food safety and quality, underpinned by a rigorous legislative framework. The UK Food Standards Agency has already set out its commitment to ensuring that UK animal welfare, and world-class expertise in managing food and feed safety risks, are maintained post-Brexit.
However, without EU safeguards, there is concern, as the UK establishes its new place on the world stage, that the Government could compromise standards as part of negotiating new trade deals with non-EU countries. Amongst the most frequently referenced is how the UK could import ‘chlorine washed chicken’ and ‘steroid pumped beef’ as part of a trade deal with the USA. Such leads to concerns about the potential for diminishing food standards, and also whether, in the future, the Government would unfairly open up UK markets to international competition, whilst requiring domestic farmers to continue to adhere to more stringent standards that would not apply to foreign imports- thus distorting competition by putting UK farmers at an unfair disadvantage.
Going forward, as long as a deal is reached, the UK has, at least for the implementation period, agreed to participate in some EU initiatives, such as RASFF– providing some interim confidence in UK produce. However longer-term frictionless UK-EU trade is needed to ensure public confidence in our food, whether home grown, imported or exported. Solutions are now needed so as to continue to maintain high standards within the UK.
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