food safety

Post-Brexit Britain must be very careful not to enter into trade agreements with countries where  food safety is brought into question.

The UK has broken up with its spouse. Now is not the time for an unhealthy rebound.

Like many big news stories, I fear the Article 50 debate, £350 million for the NHS slogan on the bus and Nigel Farage’s personality are really only distractions from much more important problems – like the niche topic of Food and Social Mobility. This isn’t futurology but a plea for us to dream big dreams for the UK but through small agreements – avoiding the political bravado of becoming a ‘deal maker’ with the USA, China or India.

Let’s look at future trade deals from the unusual perspective of food safety.

From the obvious hygiene and lethality requirements, food safety is key to ensure especially lower priced produce and meat is not adulterated with things which can damage the development of children’s brains, sterilize people, cause cancer, create non-terminal disease in the elderly and take away mental focus from people achieving their goals. Food that is low priced and processed in a dangerous way with toxins will hurt the poor most.

Food safety – yes it’s boring – is symbolic of the type of country the UK wants (or does not want) to become. My argument is that to enjoy a level playing field in a society where those who work hard can get further in life a key necessity is to ensure people are not unwittingly poisoned, sterilized or develop ADHD from what they eat.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about nutrition or obesity even, but food safety and to a lesser extent, labeling. We have a chance to preserve our high standards and such standards should be non-negotiable.

Yes, I am also afraid inside a formal deal with one of the larger economies the UK will get trade-dumped in a way that we haven’t been as part of the EU. But this has the potential to be far more insidious.

We must be very careful not to enter into trade agreements with countries where our ability to keep firm on food safety is brought into question – such as one with the United States where it is wholly possible that we will have to open up our agricultural market to products which currently do not meet our standards – and that as part of such an agreement we are not allowed to label the ingredients or processing methods on those products.

For an example of how this could look, think of the ramifications of the previous draft agreement with the European Union (TTIP) and look at the pharmaceutical segment. Would our own agricultural industry lobby us to use the same methods of production?

Whether because of the EU or by chance we now enjoy the best food and chemical safety standards in the world. Perhaps because we have discovered more dangers of certain pesticides or hormones or practices over the last thirty years, or perhaps because we have had to standardize our products and production on an even (subsidies notwithstanding) playing field.

When the UK leaves the Single Market it will have the right to keep all safety regulations currently either on their statute books or which take direct effect through an EU Directive. Wonderful. If we trade more with the ‘world’ we can continue to export such excellent quality produce and we can be highly discerning about importing.

Currently if a French farmer felt hard done by because they couldn’t use the pesticide paraquat (which some argue causes Parkinson’s disease) or the herbicide atrazine (which is a hormone disrupter) then they largely shouldn’t have to worry because they would be reasonably sure that competitors in the UK, Romania or Spain were not using them. They could still sell their produce within the market of just under 500m people knowing that competitors were using the same methods.

When the referendum result came through I was disappointed that we had not worked out a negotiating plan to hit our erstwhile friends with and trigger withdrawal before a punitive counter strategy could be formulated. What is much more important now is whether we want to mimic single market relationships with less benevolent and sovereignty-pooling partners – or whether we should build our trading network slowly but surely as we have always done.

The brutal truth is that trade deals not only take a long time (I have some insight after working on the far periphery of the Doha Round), they take a long time because so many interests of the UK or EU partners had to be taken into consideration. Yes, now we’ll only talk about the UK and we can tailor the deal to us but is there really any need to go but we’ve just left a trading block partly because of concerns around pooling sovereignty, do we need to hook up with another long term comparable partner now?

Many international commentators still don’t know what the EU or the Single Market is and they continue to spout absolute waffle about net contributions, self-determination, and currency manipulation without any real understanding – forget all that now, they are not important.

Let’s sign great deals with Australia and New Zealand, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Ghana – fantastic. Keep our standards, raise our standards even as Tony Robbins would have us do. Politicians need to ensure egos and populism doesn’t force us into the arms of a trade deal with one of the larger 5 or 6 economies where our food safety standards could in any way be on the negotiating table or the Rabbit Hole from Alice in Wonderland, as MP and former UK Chancellor Kenneth Clarke described negotiations for withdrawal this week in Parliament, will indeed be worse than a (mercury lined) Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.

Phelim Rowe is an International Conference Director and Analyst with experience both in international private industry and the UK civil service. He has various interests in public policy on the local and...

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