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What’s your beef with trade?

What’s your beef with trade?

Representatives from the UK’s Department of Trade will fly this week to Australia to begin discussions of a new bilateral trade deal between the two countries. While formal negotiations must wait for Britain and the European Union to finalise the terms of their split, informal preliminary meetings will be held in Canberra.

Currently, Australian total exports to the UK are worth $12.6 billion. Given the historical connection, the common language and the mature market, it is easy to see why a post-Brexit trade agreement with Australia would be so desirable to Liam Fox, who has described the deal as an early “win”.  

Unlike the potential trade deal with the USA, the negotiations with Australia haven’t received much press attention. Yet, the potential food safety risks from imported food that has been produced to a lower standard is just as critical in a future deal with Australia, as it would be to a free-trade deal with America. Read our briefing on the Top 10 Food Safety Risks from a Transatlantic Deal.

House of Parliament taken from across the Thames

Top on the agenda for Australian officials will be opening up the UK market to hormone-treated beef post-Brexit. Australian cattle producers use hormones because they allow animals to grow larger more quickly on less feed, thus reducing production costs. However, the practice is highly controversial and has significant public health risk and animal welfare concerns.

Currently, the import of beef that has been treated with hormones into the UK (or any other EU nation) is banned under EU laws and has been banned in the EU since 1989. The 2003 EU scientific review concluded that the hormone estradiol-17β was carcinogenic and that there was insufficient data to adequately assess the health risks of five other common beef hormones. As a result, the EU amended the ban to permanently exclude estradiol-17β and provisionally banned the five other hormones.

Australia has long opposed the European Union’s position on hormone-treated beef and has long disputed the scientific analysis. Lifting the ban is a key issue for the Australian side. The current export market of Australian beef is $5billion and Canberra hopes to take advantage of Brexit to increase its market share in the UK.

Similar to the Australians, the US is also pushing for hormone-treated beef to be approved under a post-Brexit trade deal. Washington has consistently challenged the EU over their rejection of hormone-treated beef. The US brought a successful World Trade Organization (WTO) case against the EU in 1998. The EU initially paid a retaliatory tariff to the US to maintain the ban. In 2009, the EU moved to allow some imports of high-quality (non-hormone treated) US beef under a tariff-rate quota and the US tariff was suspended.  In 2017, the US took steps to reinstate retaliatory tariffs, which are ongoing.

Liam Fox, the UK’s international trade secretary, has argued for allowing hormone-treated beef from Australia and the US into the UK market after Brexit, saying that it would reduce meat prices for consumers. It is an unsurprising stance from a politician who has repeatedly defended the controversial practice of chlorine-washed chickens, saying “there are no health reasons why you couldn’t eat chickens that have been washed in chlorinated water”. 

While public pressure demanded that the UK government publically ruled out allowing the import of chlorine-washed chicken on animal welfare grounds, it has made no public comment on hormone-treated beef. It is essential that the UK government makes a similar commitment not to lower food safety standards post-Brexit and refuse to accept hormone-treated beef.

Whether its hormone-treated beef or chlorine-washed chicken, it is critical that all future bilateral trade agreements maintain the highest food safety standards. We cannot generate a race to the bottom with UK farmers and food producers trying to compete against cheap imports of lower quality. This is particularly true if the UK is to become a global leader as Environment Secretary Michael Gove outlined in his January speech to the Oxford Real Farming Conference.

Ministers promised that UK standards on animal welfare and the environment wouldn’t be slashed post-Brexit and allowing hormone-treated beef would go entirely against that. Given the considerable influence on the direction of future trade deals that Government officials can have, we must remain vigilant to ensure that future trade deals do not allow food that has been produced to a lower safety standard into the UK market, undercutting UK farmers.

To ensure that the whole process is done in the most transparent and democratic way possible, the Soil Association helped to establish the Trade Democracy Coalition. To ensure effective public and parliamentary participation and scrutiny of trade deals, the Trade Democracy coalition is urging the Government to establish a process which:

  • Establishes broad principles for all trade policy that aligns it with human rights, workers’ rights, development objectives and environmental commitments;
  • Requires parliamentary approval of negotiating positions before starting the process of formal negotiations with a trade partner;
  • Requires participatory impact assessments, which are publicly available, to provide information on which to base decisions, including human rights, environment and international development;
  • Includes full and meaningful public consultation, including public hearings, on proposed negotiations;
  • Makes negotiating texts publicly available in a manner that allows for meaningful adjustments to be made, including halting negotiations;
  • Requires full parliamentary debate and a vote on agreements before they come into force.

We will continue to work with the Trade Democracy Coalition to advocate for greater transparency for all future trade negotiations and will keep Soil Association members apprised of any important developments.

Read more about the Coalition’s policy recommendations.