Downing Street has left open the door to Britain allowing imports of US chlorine-dipped chicken to secure a trade deal with Washington, in a compromise plan that would see the product subject to tariffs to protect UK producers.
Senior Tories say Prime Minister Boris Johnson is willing to contemplate allowing certain US farm products that are at present banned from sale in Britain into the UK, provided a tariff wall was in place to protect British producers who operate to higher welfare standards.
Washington wants far greater access to the British food market as a price for any trade deal with the UK, but such a compromise plan would trigger a backlash from the country’s farmers and consumer groups.
Mr Johnson’s spokesman on Thursday refused to deny a Daily Telegraph report that the prime minister was willing to see chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-treated beef enter the UK with tariffs attached.
“The UK will decide how we set and maintain our own standards and regulations, and we have been clear that we will not compromise on our high standards of food safety and animal welfare,” he said.
“The UK’s food regulators will continue to provide independent advice to ensure that all food imports comply with those high safety standards.”
Theresa Villiers, then environment secretary, told the BBC’s Countryfile programme in January: “We will not be importing chlorinated chicken. We will not be importing hormone-treated beef.” She said the UK would continue to apply the EU ban on such products.
Woody Johnson, the US ambassador to London, said in January it was important that US beef and poultry should be allowed into the UK. “These products should absolutely be included in a US-UK free trade agreement,” he said.
Neil Parish, Tory chair of the House of Commons food and rural affairs select committee, said the idea of allowing at present banned US imports into the UK might be acceptable if the tariff was set high enough and if the food was proved to be safe.
“I would have to see the detail,” he said. “You would have to make sure the tariff was high enough. If you let these products in tariff-free, you undermine our cost of production.”
A spokesperson for the National Farmers’ Union said: “The NFU is quite clear that trade agreements shouldn’t allow the import of food that would be illegal to produce here, which would undercut British farmers and their high standards.
“We are asking the government to introduce a trade, food and farming standards commission that can review trade policy and develop solutions to promote free trade while holding all food imports to the UK’s high food standards.”
Sue Davies, head of consumer protection and food policy at consumer group Which?, said the government’s approach “falls woefully short of consumers’ expectations”.
“The success of future trade deals will be determined by their impact on the price, choice and safety of products and services we use every day, so consumers’ expectations must be at the heart of negotiations,” she said.
The UK government has been drawing up plans to cut tariffs on US agricultural imports to help reach a trade deal, in an initiative led by Liz Truss, international trade secretary, who is overseeing the UK-US negotiations.
But she has faced opposition from the environment secretary, George Eustice, and the Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove, because of concerns about the effect on UK farmers if tariff cuts lead to further UK concessions on animal welfare.