The “alarmism” over chlorinated chicken must end, the head of a new body advising the Government over trade deals has said, as he called for a “clear-eyed perspective” on what works for consumers.
Tim Smith, a former Tesco executive who has been appointed chairman of the Trade and Agriculture Commission, said policy over trade deals with the US and other countries must be “informed by evidence and expert opinion”.
In an article for The Telegraph, Mr Smith does not explicitly rule out the possibility of chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef being allowed into the country as part of a US trade deal.
But he insists he will fight to “ensure UK farmers do not face unfair competition and that their high animal welfare and production standards are not undermined”.
Liz Truss, the International Trade Secretary, announced the membership and scope of the Commission on Friday, saying it will advise the Government on how to protect farmers as well as maximising export opportunities for them.
The Commission was set up partly to diffuse the ongoing row over the potential for cheap animal products to be imported into the UK that are farmed using methods banned in Britain.
The US wants the freedom to sell products such as chlorine-washed chicken to the UK, and hardline Brexiteers have argued that there is no health risk and British consumers should get the benefit of cheaper food on the shelves.
Chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef are currently banned in the UK because they are produced using methods that fall well below British animal welfare standards. Farmers insist it should stay that way, and Ms Truss insisted on Friday that “our high food and animal welfare standards won’t be compromised”.
Mr Smith, a former chief executive of the Food Standards Agency and former group technical director of Tesco, said: “The UK’s arrival as an independent trading nation was always going to be accompanied by a solid public debate about where our food comes from and how it is produced.
“Our trade policy ... should be informed by evidence, expert opinion and crafted in close consultation with the whole supply chain. There is no reason why it cannot be debated in a sensible and level-headed way.
“The alarmism recently around issues like imports of chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef – both of which are banned in the UK – do neither the industry nor the public any favours.
“Having a clear-eyed perspective on what is fair and works for consumers, farmers, food producers and animals is important. This is a time for cool heads and thoughtful discussion.”
The new commission, which can only advise the Government, rather than instruct it to do anything, includes representatives of the NFU and the British Retail Consortium.
Minette Batters, President of the NFU, said the establishment of the Commission was “a hugely important development in ensuring UK farming’s high standards of animal welfare and environmental protection are not undermined in future trade deals”.
Mr Smith said the “landscape has changed” for the entire food sector but he believes there are “more opportunities than risks”, such as opening new beef and lamb markets in the US or increasing cheese exports to Japan and Asia-Pacific.
He said part of the Commission’s role would be to make the most of such opportunities for small and medium-sized businesses “who have been hardest hit by coronavirus”.
He also appeared to play down the possibility of food becoming cheaper as a result of free trade, saying the Commission would “ensure the cost of the weekly shop doesn’t go up as a result of [the Government’s] trade policies”.