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Food standards at heart of UK trade strategy report

The Food and Drink Federation’s (FDF’s) A UK trade and investment strategy for food and drink​ document states: “The UK’s basic policy stance should be to remove unnecessary taxes on imported food.”

However, the key word is ‘unnecessary’ and the report continues: “The UK should expect preferential trade partners to demonstrate a capacity to deliver high standards for food and drink production, environmental sustainability and animal welfare.”

UK trade policy should ensure it protects high standards of production by scrutinising a variety of aspects, it argues. “This can include rights and protections for farm and food workers, animal welfare standards and levels of good manufacturing practice for food and drink production facilities broadly aligned with those applied in the UK and established in frameworks such as ISO or the FAO’s ​[Food and Agriculture Organisation’s] Codex Alimentarius, accounting where appropriate for the level of development of an importing partner.

Differential tariffs

“Where these standards are not a high priority for a trading partner or are not adequately enforced, the UK should hesitate to extend preferential trade in food and drink. Within a trading partner, there may also be a mix of producers who meet high standards, and those that don’t. To deal with this, the UK should also explore the concept of differential tariffs, through agreeing lower tariffs for those producers within a trading partner who demonstrably meet high standards.”

“Where possible, trading partners should also commit to non-regression from their existing standards of animal welfare and food production.”​ And tariffs should also not raise prices or restrict choice for consumers, according to the document.

The paper argues the 2025 UK Border Strategy should deliver ‘data-driven process efficiency and simplification’ for import, export processes, but stresses: “…The UK should be a firm advocate for the use of forms of mutual regulatory reliance to help reduce the regulatory burden on importers and exporters without compromising on food safety by maintaining high product standards.”

Preferential treatment

Import partners should be given preferential treatment based on their willingness to accommodate high (although not necessarily identical) UK standards. This forms the basis of the first four of the report’s 20 recommendations. These initial proposals press for the elimination of ‘any tax’ on food and drink imports ‘that cannot be justified as supporting food security or another clear policy rationale’.

“All negotiations should be preceded by an assessment of core food and drink production standards, environmental sustainability and animal welfare. Preferential trade partners should meet baseline commitments to working with the UK on high standards.

“…UK FTAs ​[Free Trade Agreements] should contain robust commitments to effectively enforce, and non-regression from, defined levels of animal welfare and food and drink production.”

Simple rules of origin

The report also calls for ‘simple and practical rules of origin’ allowing global sourcing for preferential tariffs. Other recommendations include a call to defend UK intellectual property, including geographical indicators, in any deals and the creation of a real time registry of regulatory barriers in key markets.

Border checks should be eased where there is mutual regulatory reliance among UK trade partners and risk-based mutual trust.

The report calls for a strategic plan to improve UK port capabilities to enhance the flow of trade, with scope for boosting ‘surge capacity, automation and AI’.

Marketing strategy for England

Pressing for more targeting investment in UK food and drink, the paper calls for the same coordinated export marketing strategy for food and drink producers in England as there is in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. “The devolved administrations in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales have developed effective export support and promotion tools to support their iconic local products and businesses that should now be developed for England, where exporters continue to operate at a disadvantage.”

Significantly, given the struggles the UK food industry has had with the requirement for physical Export Health Certificates (EHCs) for exports, the strategy document calls for a removal of the need for EHCs for trusted trade partners. It calls for the Government to work with industry to build ‘a world-leading approach to sanitary and phytosanitary controls’. Trade documentation could be digitalised and aligned along the lines of the UK-Singapore Digital Economy Partnership Agreement (DEPA), it suggests.

The document recommends a single approach to border processes. “At the moment, food and drink traders must navigate Border Force, HMRC, FSA, Defra, and Port Health Authorities.”

UK domestic production

Commenting on the report, Provision Trade Federation director general Andrew Kuyk said: “It is a valuable contribution to thinking on behalf of larger, more export oriented, businesses, but we also need to ensure that UK domestic production can remain viable to provide the resilience and food security we need.”

FDF chief executive Karen Betts said: “Our report looks at how Government and industry put food and drink at the heart of the UK’s new, independent trade policy, and ensures this supports companies in our sector to grow and thrive. Trade is also a means of curbing rising costs, which is particularly important now at a time of soaring inflation. 

“This strategy sets out the strong partnership we want to continue to foster with the UK Government and Devolved Administrations, so our industry can play its full role in growing UK exports and in using trade to deliver economic growth and prosperity across the UK, to communities up and down the country.”

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