Andrea Leadsom has offered reassurances to farmers that the government will not compromise on food standards as it leaves the EU and begins to forge new trade deals.
There are concerns among some farmers that when Britain withdraws from EU regulations on food safety and the environment, it could open the door to cheap, low-quality imports – particularly from the US, which is seen as having lower food safety and environmental standards than the UK.
The British government has highlighted America as a key trade partner – a point underlined by Theresa May’s controversial visit of Donald Trump in January and her reluctance to criticise the new American president directly.
“The US is a really important partner for the UK,” she said in a press conference at the NFU Conference in Birmingham. “It is a very clear priority relationship for us but in any free trade arrangement there are two sides.
She added: “I’ve been very clear that we will not put ourselves in an uncompetitive position by reducing welfare or food safety or food traceability standards. It is a very key unique selling point for the UK that we don’t want to do anything to undermine.
“It’s one of the most compelling reasons that consumers around the world want to buy British and we move further and faster than many in the EU when it comes to improving welfare standards.”
The UK is considered one of the top countries in the world for its food safety and food traceability standards, with provenance becoming an increasingly important issue for consumers.
The Red Tractor scheme – which promotes high standards in animal welfare, food safety, traceability and environmental protection – was praised by Leadsom at the NFU Conference, who dismissed suggestions from dairy farmer Tom Rigby that Donald Trump would “push our cherished Red Tractor into the ditch”.
The environment minister was also keen to reiterate a manifesto commitment from the government on upholding British animal welfare standards in international free trade agreements. NFU president Meurig Raymond said he was “heartened” by this commitment and vowed to “hold her to it.”