Farmers and food campaigners were defeated on Monday night in their attempts to enshrine high food safety and animal welfare practices in British law.
Several prominent backbench Tory MPs rebelled against the government to vote for amendments to the agriculture bill that would have given legal status to the standards, but the rebels were too few to overcome the government’s 80-seat majority and the key amendment fell by 332 votes to 279 after an often impassioned debate.
The government argued that giving current standards legal status was unnecessary as ministers had already committed to ensuring that UK food standards would be kept in any post-Brexit trade agreements. However, critics fear that the lack of a legally binding commitment in the agriculture bill will allow future imports of sub-standard food that will undercut British produce and expose consumers to risk.
Kath Dalmeny, chair of the Future British Standards Coalition, said: “It’s dismaying that the government has opposed attempts to put into law its own commitment to maintain British food standards. It is perfectly possible to have high standards at home and sign trade deals with new trading partners who meet them. It’s what consumers have repeatedly said they want.”
The bill, with its defeated amendments, will now return to the House of Lords and there will be further chances this week for debate. But the government’s majority gives proponents of a tougher bill a hill to climb, despite a recent YouGov poll that showed nine out of 10 people want to protect British standards on food and animal welfare in trade deals.
Katie White, executive director of advocacy and campaigns at WWF, said: “We hope the Lords take this public mandate to deliver the Conservative manifesto commitment to maintain standards, especially after it was significantly backed by Conservative MPs. We call on peers to secure guarantees that the public and MPs are told upfront about any changes to standards that might happen as a result of trade deals, and that the final say on any changes will be a decision for our elected representatives.”
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The votes came as a Dispatches documentary on Channel 4 revealed the poor hygiene and welfare among livestock on intensive farms in the US. Although the government has given repeated assurances that chlorinated chicken and hormone-injected beef would not be imported to the UK under any trade deals, campaigners point out that banning these two products would still allow the import of many types of other food produced under conditions and with drugs, including antibiotics, that would be illegal in the UK.
Luke Pollard, the shadow environment, food and rural affairs secretary, said: “The Conservatives have again broken their promise to British farmers and the public. No one wants lower quality food on our plates, but there