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Ten things food and farming people need to know about the leaked US/UK trade papers

We've read the leaked notes from UK-US trade talks. If you care about food safety standards, farming, pesticides, Stilton cheese and sugar labelling, here's our summary of what you need to be concerned about...

Photo credit: Sandeep Subba

Photo credit: Sandeep Subba

On 27 November 2019 the Labour Party revealed copies of the meeting notes from all six of the US and UK trade and investment working group (TIWG) meetings. These were meetings that took place between US and UK trade representatives. This group first met in July 2017 to begin preliminary talks about trade, ahead of the UK leaving the European Union. Formal trade negotiations cannot begin until the UK has officially exited the EU.

At Sustain, we felt that it was particularly worth noting that in the papers for the final meeting (10-11 July 2019), they said that discussions on agriculture were already "well advanced". In the same notes, the US team said there is continued pressure from political leadership for a free trade agreement (FTA) and a desire to be ready to move quickly, as this was seen as being "politically advantageous" for the US President.

The US team were also clear that ‘the UK-EU trading relationship would be determinative: it would be all to play for in a no-deal Brexit, but a commitment from the UK to the European Customs Union and Single Market would make a UK-US free trade agreement a non-starter. UK officials noted that there was a common theme on a "future public communications battle" (sixth meeting, 10/11 July 2019, p.2).

In the fifth working group (p.97) the US gave an economics presentation showing that a hard Brexit, allowing for an elimination of tariffs between the two countries would be worst for Britain (fifth working group, p.97).

The papers amount to more than 450 pages, but we have picked out what we think are the main issues for Sustain alliance members (below). If you feel that there is anything we have missed, please do get in touch and we will update this page.

1. Food standards and safety

The documents show that the US trade negotiators have wanted to discuss British food standards – specifically our hygiene ("sanitary") standards – from the very first meeting (first working group, 24/25 July 2017, p.33). Despite UK concerns about food safety in the US (e.g. 400 salmonella deaths per year), the US negotiators maintain that their food safety system is "the gold standard" and the UK told them that we are in "listening mode" on food (second meeting, 13/14 November 2017, p.42).

In the same meeting, the US flags that their determination to remove pathogens (bacteria, viruses and other disease-causing contaminants) from food via methods such as chlorine-washing, versus the EU’s to remove the need for chemicals often "conflict" with one another and that the UK should not stick with the EU's food regulatory standards after Brexit. Instead, the US "recommended that the UK maintains regulatory autonomy" (second meeting, 13/14 November 2017, p.42).

The US are therefore described as "deflated" in the fourth meeting (after the Chequers meeting in 2018, when Prime Minister published her government's approach calling for "close regulatory alignment" with the EU on standards), with the US calling Theresa May’s proposal for Brexit a "worst case scenario" because it would align the UK with EU standards (which they do not like) but reduce the UK’s ability to influence those standards (fourth working group, 10/11 July 2018, p26).

The US also suggested that the UK had used chemical washes to treat food in the past and are recorded as speculating as to whether the UK might be interested in reintroducing them to the UK food chain after Brexit (second meeting, 13/14 November 2017, p.42).

In the third meeting (21-22 March 2019), the US gave a presentation about their government's food standards agency (the Food and Drug Administration, FDA), emphasising their risk-based, "flexible" approach, and how they prefer voluntary standards rather than regulations. They make it clear that a lot of their activity is dependent on industry funding and that industry tells them how they "should spend the money" (p.68).

2. Chlorinated chicken

The UK, as part of the EU, has long rejected meat from the United States that has been treated with chlorine or other chemical washes, so Brexit presents an opportunity for the US to prise open a new market for its products. To assist with this, the US offered to share its public lines to take on the issue in order "to help inform the media narrative around the issue" (second working group, pp42-43).

3. Farming/agriculture sector

As with food, the papers show that the US has viewed agricultural standards as an important part of the trade agreement since the first meeting in 2017 and by the fourth meeting (10/11 July 2018) the US was pressing for an "ambitious" free trade agreement that removes as many regulatory "barriers" as possible – specifically on agriculture (p.4).

4. Devolved administrations

In the second meeting (13/14 November 2019), the US and UK negotiators discuss how important agriculture is to the UK's devolved administrations and how "sensitive" a matter it is to respect devolution settlements and manage the internal market. The US offers to help the UK by sharing their experience of ‘ensuring that different states "don’t create barriers" (p.57).

5. Pesticides and the precautionary principle

The documents clarify that the US sees a "philosophical difference" in approach between a risk-based approach (US) and an increasingly hazard-based approach (EU) (second meeting, 13/14 November 2017, p.41).

In the first meeting, the US specifically complained that a "growing number of substances" that had formerly been approved had been "taken off the books" and producers were "worried". They went on to press the UK to influence the EU’s deliberations on "plant protection products" (e.g. pesticides) and said that if the UK’s fails they will have a "challenge of working out how it could face both ways (towards the EU and US)". Disappointingly, the UK responded saying that it had "routinely 'banged the table' about scientific-based assessment", which we worry could be a sign that they are prepared to abandon the UK's current approach to the precautionary principle (p.36).

Separately, the documents indicate a view that it is "not helpful" to have a secondary, political parliamentary process that can overrule decisions on regulations – in this case, the European Parliament and glysophate (a herbicide) (second meeting, 13/14 November 2017, p.42).

6. Climate emergency

The EU has pledged only to strike trade deals with countries committed to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

In the second meeting in 2017, the US refused a UK request to reference climate change in any future trade agreement, given the UK’s "strong historical stance" and commitment to the Paris deal and the pressure they were expecting to come under from civil society and NGOs.

The US trade representative "responded emphatically that climate change is the most political (sensitive) question for the US, stating it is a ‘lightning rod issue’”. She continued that "the US is bound by Congress not to mention greenhouse gas emission reductions in trade agreements" adding that this ban would not be lifted anytime soon. 

From the documents in the public domain, climate has not been brought up in any subsequent working party meetings.

7. Food labelling

As raised previously by Sustain, the US show in the documents that they are hostile to the introduction of warning labels on food, claiming they are "harmful" rather than as a step to helping people identify healthier and less healthy foods and the benefits this could achieve for consumer choice, product reformulation and public health (second working group, p.42). The US side said they were "concerned that labelling food with high sugar content (as has been done with tobacco) is not particularly useful in changing consumer behaviour".

This is another area in which UK and US policy diverge. Clear labelling of food is a cornerstone of the UK's current public health strategy, as mentioned in the UK's prevention green paper in July 2019. In 2013, the UK government introduced a voluntary front-of-pack, traffic-light labelling scheme, which uses colours, words and numbers to help UK consumers understand the amount of fat, saturated fat, sugar, salt and calories in a product. As outlined in the green paper, “this scheme was the result of over 15 years of research to provide a label that meets the needs of UK shoppers”.

8. Antibiotics

We note with interest that antibiotic use in farming is not mentioned in any of the six working party papers. This is despite of the clear evidence that US farmers use five times more antibiotics per animal than British farmers do.

9. Genetic modification (GM and GMOs)

Currently in the UK (as part of our membership of the EU) products are labelled if produced using genetically modified organisms. In the second US/UK trade meeting, the US raised this issue and said they are keen to make sure labels are "useful" without "playing into fears" (second group, 13/14 November, p.43). They make it clear that they think the EU is taking decisions on genetic modification (GM and GMOs) for political rather than scientific reasons; express concern about the pace of GM approvals in the EU; and seem keen to know if the UK will take a different approach, post-Brexit (second working group, p.43).

10. Geographical indicators and artisan food

The US make it clear that they are opposed to geographical indicator protection for our foods (e.g. legal protection for geographically distinctive, traditional and artisan foods like Stilton and Melton Mowbray pies) because they want to use the names themselves and they say they want to challenge them before such protections are granted (first working group, 24/25 July 2017, p41).


If you would like to read the original documents, you’ll find them on Sustain member Global Justice Now’s website here.




Published Wednesday 4 December 2019

Sustainable Farming Campaign: Sustain encourages integration of sustainable food and farming into local, regional and national government policies.

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Orla is Head of Public Affairs for Sustain and also leads the communications for Sustain’s work on Good Food Trade. She is working hard to promote the opportunities and threats for food, farming and fishing as we exit the EU so we all have decent food to eat at the end of the process.

Orla Delargy
Head of Public Affairs

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