118.EU members have a common trade policy and are represented by the EU in all international trade negotiations. Post Brexit, the UK would be free to seek its own trade deals with the rest of the world.
119.10% of UK trade currently comes through bilateral agreements that the EU has with third countries. The British Retail Consortium told us that the UK needed to prioritise agreements with those countries, such as South Korea, South Africa, Peru, Chile and Iceland.
120.Witnesses agreed that opportunities for growth areas were outside Europe, in countries such as China, India and the United States. However, the National Sheep Association expressed concern at the length of time it could take to agrees such deals, with some taking 8 to 10 years. In addition, the UK would be competing with others for these export markets. For example, the US was a threat to increasing the poultry market for dark meat, as it had a large established export market in this product.
121.In countries such as China, where status was important, we heard that relationship building at a high level was extremely important in order to achieve trade agreements. While organisations such as AHDB were invaluable in terms of international marketing, sectoral organisations told us that Government to Government relationships were key. The National Sheep Association criticised the current level of engagement: “Where we have fallen down is at a governmental and ambassadorial level, in terms of relationship building at the highest possible level”.
122.Witnesses expressed concern that not enough resources were being put into marketing the UK abroad. The National Pig Association said there was a need to better finance and equip “UK plc” to promote exports abroad:
When you look at our competitors outside the European Union—the United States is a good example—the amount of resource they put in to promoting their export agendas, particularly in south-east Asia, is huge. It is seismic in comparison to anything that we do. If we really want those economies, not just in south-east Asia but around the world, to seriously think that the UK is looking to export quality products that have full traceability … we have to look at properly resourcing UK plc exports so that we are taken seriously as a serious exporting nation.
In agreeing with that, Tulip Ltd. told us “Denmark is a major exporter of pig meat and has 20 people sitting in China. In the UK pig sector, we have one person in China”.
123.We have already examined the risk of food produced to lower animal welfare and environmental standards entering the UK when operating under WTO terms (see para 51). Witnesses also expressed concern that welfare standards would be sacrificed in order to achieve free trade agreements. This was felt to be particularly relevant in discussions with the USA, where there has been a lot of media focus on chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef.
124.Compassion in World Farming told us that it was “vital” that any new trade agreement included a clause requiring imports to meet UK animal welfare and environmental standards.
125.In an earlier appearance before the Committee, the Secretary of State went on record saying yes to the question as to whether a trade deal could be thwarted on standards issues. During this inquiry, he told us that the Government would be assertive in defence of its own interests. He agreed that high welfare standards were not only important to consumers but also to the UK’s international reputation.
126.It was recognised that new market opportunities would not replace EU trade, particularly as it was a natural trade partner.
127.On leaving the EU, if there is no customs union, the UK will be able to pursue free trade agreements with non-EU countries. It is essential that the Government identify those countries where resources should be targeted. The Government must start developing relationships at a high political level with potential trading partners in order to ensure that agreements are signed to the benefit of the UK. The Government must also investigate how it can utilise the expertise within the House of Lords and House of Commons in building relationships and representing the UK overseas.
128.While we recognise the huge benefit that trade agreements could bring, these must not at the detriment of the UK’s reputation for high animal welfare, environmental and food standards. The UK Government must not allow imports that that have not been produced to the UK’s high standards.
129.Witnesses told us that leaving the EU would allow the Government to frame its own food labelling legislation. Improved legislation would allow consumers to distinguish between food produced domestically and to high welfare standards, and imports where standards were not as high.
130.Currently, EU regulations on country of origin labelling of meat allow for meat products to be labelled with the country where the last significant change in production took place—and not necessarily where the animal had spent its entire life. If the UK continued with current practice, the Royal Institute of International Affairs noted that this could lead to a situation where, were chlorine-washed US chicken used as an ingredient in a UK-made chicken pie, it would not require labelling.
131.Sustain also spoke of the need to introduce mandatory method of production labelling. At present, meat and milk do not have to be labelled to identify how they were produced. We heard that mandatory egg labelling had seen free-range sales increase dramatically, and that this should be replicated into other areas.
132.George Eustice MP told us the UK had always supported more mandatory country of origin labelling, and that the EU has resisted clearer labelling on processed food such as bacon, sausages and cheese. He recognised that this was an area that the UK could introduce nationally post-Brexit.
133.It is essential that consumers be fully informed about the food that they are consuming. Current food labelling under EU regulations is not sufficient. We recommend that the Government improve country of origin labelling following the UK’s departure from the EU. We also recommend that the Government introduce mandatory method of production labelling.
114 Compassion in World Farming ()
115 , Oral Transcript, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Session 2017-2019 HC 321
117 Hybu Cig Cymru ()
118 The Royal Institute of International Affairs ()
119 Sustain ()
120 RSPCA ()
12 February 2018