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Wed 12 August 2020
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Looking forward to Jersey Royal potatoes fresh from New Jersey? Henry Dyer reports on how US/UK trade talks could endanger British food standards

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“In all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards”

So pledged the Conservative Party in its 2019 manifesto, outlining the principles it would follow in negotiations to create a new “independent trade policy” for the UK. Initial indications of the degree to which the Government is following this pledge are not positive, after the Observer reported the details of a memo to ministers instructing them to have “no specific policy” on animal welfare in trade talks with the US. 

European Union legislation on food safety and animal welfare was wide-ranging and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) states that it is “working hard to ensure that the high standard of food safety and consumer protection we enjoy in this country is maintained when the UK leaves the EU” and that “throughout the transition period and beyond we are committed to having in place a robust and effective regulatory regime which will mean business can continue as normal”.

But, as the UK enters into negotiations with the US, aspects of the food standards regime are expected to be up for debate as the American negotiators seek advantageous terms for their producers. The geographical indication (GI) scheme is one such aspect.


US Opposes Geographical Identification

Introduced into EU legislation in 1993, the system has three tiers. The strictest, Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) concerns a product produced and prepared in a specific area using a particular method of preparation, such as Cornish clotted cream. Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) covers products produced or prepared in a specific area, for example, Melton Mowbray pork pies. The loosest, Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG), covers products produced in a particular manner, but not necessarily in a certain area.

The US is opposed to this system and has its own system based on trademarks, which is problematic as the UK seeks to simultaneously negotiate with the US and the EU at the same time. Both attempt to get third-party countries, as the UK will be doing, to conform to their conflicting standards during negotiations.

US policy is broadly objected to by the EU system as it protects terms the US believe should be generic, such as parmesan; while at the same time the EU’s system is more open in that it does not restrict production of protected items to the company with the trademark. As long as the same procedures of production and preparation are followed in the same area, then any company could produce Cornish clotted cream. 

Reports from the office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) makes this clear. A 2020 report on “foreign trade barriers” notes its concern that the EU’s “‘place of farming’ requirements are unclear, difficult to comply with, and lack a basis in international standards” and that the US “continues to stress to the Commission that common names of products should not be absorbed into quality schemes”.

Meanwhile, the USTR’s February 2019 summary of specific negotiation objectives with the UK states that negotiators aim to “prevent the undermining of market access for US products through the improper use of the UK’s system for protecting or recognising geographical indications, including any failure to ensure transparency and procedural fairness, or adequately protect generic terms for common use”.


Foie Gras as ‘National Fish’

Campaigners fear what might happen if protected geographical indications are given up in trade talks, suggesting that British markets could be flooded with knock-off American goods purporting to be of the same quality and standard under the same name.

Jean Blaylock of Global Justice Now told Byline Times: “Terms such as Cornish pasty, Blue Stilton, Melton Mowbray pork pies or Scottish salmon can be really important for local economies and in supporting small businesses to make the most of distinct special traditions around food. It also guarantees the quality of products sold under these iconic names. The US trade deal wants to sweep this away so that transnational agribusinesses can sell us ersatz, mass produced versions from anywhere in the world.”

But ardent Brexiters insist that there is nothing to fear in trade talks with the Americans. One of the most vocal voices is a man with experience in the food industry – the former Brexit Party MEP Lance Forman.

Forman, who defected to the Conservatives during the 2019 General Election, has talked up American food standards many times, citing his own “practical experience” as a smoked salmon tycoon. For example, in December 2018, he said that “the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] are much stricter in many areas than the FSA. Both in terms of food safety and animal welfare”, before going on to suggest that “Foie Gras is the national fish of France”.

But Forman, who proudly promotes his PGI-protected London Cure Smoked Salmon – the protection was announced by then DEFRA Secretary Michael Gove – has had a whole new level of experience with the higher food standards of the FDA. The FDA has issued a warning letter following an inspection of Forman’s east London salmon processing facility and found “serious violations” of seafood regulations, describing the “ready-to-eat (RTE) cold smoked salmon products” as “adulterated, in that they have been prepared, packed, or held under insanitary conditions whereby they may have been rendered injurious to health”. 

Forman insisted to the trade magazine SalmonBusiness that the warning “was not because of breach of regulations” but was “because we had not responded by the deadline to a routine enquiry” as the food safety manager had been self-isolating owing to the Coronavirus. He stated that “the recommendations were not about our food safety, they were about evidencing our food safety, which in today’s litigious world, especially in the USA, is fair enough”.

But, ever the Brexiter, Forman suggested that “maybe this requirement for inspections would evaporate if we do a trade deal with the USA” – suggesting that a willingness for a degradation in food standards in favour of free trade can be found on both sides of the Atlantic.


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