UK in quest for new balance in approach to trade and food safety

The UK should show leadership in the WTO in “testing” trade rules which work against domestic policy objectives in areas like food standards, animal welfare and environmental protection, British members of parliament were told this week.

At a hearing of the House of Commons’ committee on the environment, food and rural affairs on Wednesday, numerous “grey areas”, in terms of the legality of measures to restrict imports of products such as ‘chlorinated’ chicken from the US, were spelt out by industry and civil society witnesses.

But Nick von Westenholz, the National Farmers Union’s Director of EU Exit and International Trade, suggested that Brexit gave the UK the opportunity to explore new approaches to familiar SPS dilemmas of this type.

As an example, he noted that much of European agriculture is currently affected by a ban on neonicotinoid pesticides, which has led to a sharp drop in oilseed rape production and an increase in imports of rape oil from countries  like Ukraine, where the pesticide – implicated in the decline of bee populations – has not been restricted.

“This is clearly unfair, but under current WTO rules there is not much we can do about it. But the UK should now take some leadership in testing these rules and over time pushing to reform them,” von Westenholz told the EFRA committee.

“We should be interrogating WTO rules that say we are obliged to import goods which have been  banned for environmental reasons. That is a perfectly legitimate policy stance,” he added.

Torn between EU and US approaches

The issue is a live one in the UK at present as Britain tries to decide where to position its post-Brexit food quality policy on the spectrum between the EU – which applies a ‘precautionary principle’ requiring restrictions on imports of certain types of agri-food products even where this is not clearly supported by scientific evidence – and the US, which has a more open and science-based approach.

The UK is currently in negotiations for a free trade agreement with the EU, and is about to launch simultaneous FTA discussions with Washington. This means that a neutral stance in the SPS area is unlikely to be an option for the London government.

Emily Rees, Managing Director of the Trade Strategies consultancy, told MPs that the rules could be applied slightly differently depending on the regimes under which products were imported.

Imports made on a MFN basis had to respect WTO principles which prohibit discrimination against ‘like products’ on the basis of how they are produced, Rees noted.

“But in FTAs, things are different. In trade agreement we can ask for conditions to be met in order to get preferential access.”

She cited the example of the recently concluded EU-Mercosur agreement, under which the EU will offer tariff reductions for imports of eggs on condition that European welfare standards for hens are respected.

“So we can eliminate a tariff within a quota, under condition of certain rules being respected. These are essentially SPS-plus conditions,” she told the committee.

Beef hormones issue ‘frozen – but not settled’

But Rees also warned that the long-running WTO dispute over hormones in beef had not been settled – the issue was merely “frozen”. The US and EU had in effect ‘agreed to disagree’ on the question of the legality of the EU hormone ban, based on the EU’s offer of a compensatory 45,000 tonne tariff rate quota for hormone-free beef.

“Science has not shown a risk to human health from hormones. So the UK will probably also need to make a TRQ concession in order to settle with the US.”

The question of how a ‘like product’ should be defined remains a complex area of international trade law, although Rees noted that the dispute some years ago over the EU’s ban on imports of seal products had established some useful guidelines in this respect.

“If we in Britain wanted to ban imports of foie gras on welfare grounds, for example, it would probably work – as these are not produced in the UK. But if it was something that was produced in UK – like chicken – then the ‘likeness’ test would come into play,” she noted.

But the NFU’s von Westenholz pointed to the limitations of the laws currently in force, taking the example of the EU’s current plan to ban imports of meat or dairy products from countries which do not have the same rules as the EU on preventing the spread of antimicrobial resistance via veterinary medicines.

“There is a moral issue here – antimicrobial resistance will be a big killer. But do you argue this as a moral question, or on the grounds of protection of human health?” he queried.

“There is not a specific concern with the safety of the product at the point of import. So on this, and in other similar areas, we should take a take a step back and ensure that our policy is accommodated under existing rules.”

March 2020

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