SCOTLAND’S Rural Economy Secretary has called on the UK Government to prevent the “considerable risk” of significant damage to the country’s food and drink sector.
Fergus Ewing has written to UK Environment Secretary George Eustice to highlight concerns over a “race to the bottom” on food, animal health and welfare standards.
He said Scottish farmers could not only face losing key export markets as a result of Brexit, but face increased competition from cheaper, lower quality food coming into the country.
His comments come after amendments which would have enshrined the need for food imports to meet current standards were voted down in two bills going through the Commons.
Ewing wrote: “If not in the Agriculture Bill, or the Trade Bill, then where will the UK Government legislate to ensure that imported food must meet the relevant domestic standards and give producers and consumers the protection they deserve and evidentially seek?”
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He said despite assurances from UK ministers that lower standard foods will not be allowed into the country via free trade agreements (FTAs) negotiated after Brexit, there was “growing uncertainty” over the UK Government’s approach.
He said: “In the single FTA renegotiated to date, with Japan, there was an opportunity to ensure that antimicrobial resistance, which is a shared priority for public and animal health, was taken forward in that renegotiated deal. UK negotiators failed to achieve this.
“That does not augur well for negotiations with other countries where we need a commitment to addressing this key health issue, as well as maintain standards on imported food.”
Ewing said an FTA is not just about economics, but the “morals and values of a country” and the UK should be aspiring to be a world-leader in food standards and animal health.
He also warned a No-Deal Brexit with the EU will bring “untold disruption, chaos and delay” and make some Scottish exports such as beef and lamb “almost unviable” as a result of high tariffs.
And he said the situation is being made worse by the UK Internal Market Bill, which will lead to Scotland being forced to accept goods from elsewhere even if they do not meet standards set by Holyrood.
“It will fire the starting pistol for a race to the bottom on food and animal health and welfare standards,” he added.
“The appropriate means of dealing with differences of policy between the administrations is through the programme of common frameworks that we have agreed, not through imposition by UK Government.”
The letter went on: “I am increasingly alarmed at what recent actions and omissions by the UK Government – before we have even left the EU – signal for the future.
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“The risks of potential significant damage to Scotland’s food and drink sector are now considerable.”
However, he said UK ministers could take action by protecting the responsibilities of the devolved nations for food and animal standards and amending legislation to enshrine standards into law.
A UK Government spokesperson said it would not sign a trade deal which compromised standards on environmental protection, animal welfare and food and any claims to the contrary were “scaremongering”.
She said: “We are a world leader in these areas and that will not change.
“Chlorinated chicken and hormone-injected beef are not permitted for import into the UK. This will be retained through the EU Withdrawal Act and enshrined in UK law at the end of the transition period.
“The Government is focused on getting trade deals that protect and advance the interests of our farmers and consumers.