Will we need food patrols on the border?

Will we need food patrols on the border?

The debate on the border has focused on how Northern Ireland might be kept in ‘the’ or at least ‘a’ customs union with the EU. This still leaves the question of how the agri-food industry north and south would have to deal with an exit from the single market and its food and sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) protections. How could EU food standards be enforced in Dundalk if much cheaper GM foods, hormone-injected beef, Ractopamine-fed pork or chlorinated chicken are on sale in Newry?

Regulatory divergence is not only a danger in the context of a hard Brexit, it would be an explicit US demand if the UK wants to do a trade deal with Washington. Earlier this month the US Trade Representative (USTR) published a 500-page document setting out what the US sees as restrictions to trade all around the world. It wants to get rid of “onerous” rules on everything from animal welfare to chemicals, including pretty much the whole body of European consumer protection.

Wilbur Ross, the US commerce secretary, suggested European regulations governing the safety of imports such as chlorine-washed chicken ignored US scientific research. In a speech to business people in London he said these regulations will form a “critical component of any trade discussion,” between London and Washington, while the UK should also take steps to remove “unnecessary regulatory divergences” with the US.

The biggest concern taking up a 47-page chapter in the report is EU testing, labelling and certification requirements and “sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures”. In the US view these are hidden protectionist measures.

“The United States remains concerned about a number of measures the EU maintains ostensibly for the purposes of food safety and protecting human, animal, or plant life or health,” the USTR said.

It complains about the burden of EU food labelling as well as restrictions on cosmetics and pesticides and the widely recognised CE safety mark, so expect that to go. It even criticises a public health bill in Ireland which proposes minimum unit pricing as well as labelling requirements for alcohol.The USTR says the measures “have the potential to generate additional administrative costs and detrimentally impact the ability of US exporters to reallocate product in the European market”.

In any US trade deal, the UK will come under pressure to accept Ractopamine,  which is fed to an estimated 60-90% of pigs in the US in the weeks before slaughter. The EU has outlawed its use since 1996.

Donald Trump’s most senior business representative has warned any post-Brexit deal with Washington will hinge on the UK scrapping rules set by Brussels, including regulations governing imports of chlorinated chicken. Also on the US list are GM foods and hormone-injected beef.

UK Trade Secretary Liam Fox has spoken in favour of chlorinated chicken. Right-wing groups including the US Cato  Institute and the UK Initiative for Free Trade are actively working for a bonfire of food regulations. A leaked document uncovered by Greenpeace advocates tearing up the EU’s “precautionary principle”, under which traders have to prove something is safe before it is sold, rather than waiting for it to be proved unsafe.