U.S. pressures UK to weaken food safety standards | Pesticide Action Network
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U.S. pressures UK to weaken food safety standards

Emily Marquez's picture

With Brexit comes the potential for the United Kingdom (UK) to negotiate free trade agreements with individual countries. The U.S. and UK have gone through two rounds of negotiations, with the second round completed at the end of June. A major sticking point is around agriculture, including pesticide residues. 

PAN UK recently released “Toxic Trade,” a report co-authored with partner organization Sustain — along with a companion video — that compares pesticide standards of three countries (the U.S., Australia, and India) with which the UK is negotiating post-Brexit trade. PAN UK, understandably, doesn’t want the UK pesticide standards to be weakened as a result of these negotiations, for the sake of community health and the environment.

The U.S. standards on pesticide residues, for instance, are weaker than the UK’s. Some pesticides used in the U.S. are banned in the UK, which has zero “tolerances” for certain kinds of residues. For other pesticides, the tolerances are lower in the UK than in the U.S. The PAN UK report shows examples of seven highly hazardous pesticides banned in the EU that are allowed for use in the U.S., including a U.S. tolerance for the neurotoxic insecticide chlorpyrifos on apples.

Standards slipping

The European Union (EU) has negotiating directives that ask for continuing current health and safety standards. The UK’s standards — for instance, on animal welfare and meat/poultry processing — are currently aligned with the EU’s, and are more strict than the U.S. standards. Because the UK is leaving the EU, they could change their standards  — and, if the U.S. gets its way, the UK could align itself with the U.S.’s weaker standards.

Although the U.S. doesn’t export very much meat and even less poultry to the UK, there are some pretty significant policy differences between the U.S. and the UK on how meat and poultry are handled. For example, antimicrobial rinses on poultry have been banned in the EU since 1997 but are still used in the U.S. These rinses basically allow us to raise poultry in less sanitary living conditions before it goes to the processing plant.  

Free trade, but not fair trade

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer complained in the June 17th House Ways and Means Committee Hearing on Trade Policy that “Using standards as protection has risen to the state of a high art in Europe. . . they’re among the best places in the world to figure out ways to get protectionism by having a standard, and not have it be science-based.” Maybe Lighthizer isn’t aware that scientific evidence suggests that pesticide exposure is bad, especially for children

As mentioned earlier, pesticide residue standards are also being negotiated. The EU has stricter policies on pesticide residue tolerances, based on the precautionary principle

Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) raised valuable questions in the hearing, stating that “With pesticides, our regulations do not set a high enough standard. . . should we really export our weak standards to another country. . ?” and commenting that, “American families need national and international agricultural policies that address our common welfare. . .” I can’t help but agree. 

Negotiations march on

According to colleagues at PAN UK, these negotiations are part of the ongoing, global attack on EU standards by the U.S. And these complex (32 chapters!) negotiations involve more than agriculture. The National Health Service and its ability to purchase pharmaceuticals at a more affordable price for its members is also a major area that could be affected, though the UK government says that won’t happen. 

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer stated that a finalized trade agreement is “unlikely” to go through before the November elections, but regardless, our PAN UK colleagues are tracking this process. A slower process is likely more beneficial in terms of keeping protections for health and the environment.

The next round of negotiations between the U.S. and UK is set for the end of July. In the meantime, there’s also the huge matter of the UK negotiating with the EU, with which the UK conducts the bulk of its trade. It is totally possible (or likely) that the UK will have a “no deal” Brexit by the end of this year.  

To learn more: Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy has a great webinar with Global Justice Now, as well as this blog that gives further context on this issue.

Emily Marquez
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Emily Marquez's picture

Emily Marquez is PAN's Staff Scientist. She is a biologist with a background in endocrine disruption and environmental toxicology in reptiles. In addition to supporting scientific research for PAN’s campaigns, Emily trains community members in using PAN’s Drift Catcher to monitor for pesticide drift. Follow @EmilyAtPan