Labour announced last week it had obtained official documents from six rounds of preliminary US-UK trade talks that “pull back the curtain” on a post-Brexit deal.
The 451-page dossier of official files details meetings held in both London and Washington from July 2017 to November 2018.
“We are talking here about secret talks for a deal with Donald Trump after Brexit. A deal that will shape our country’s future,” said leader Jeremy Corbyn at a press conference last Wednesday.
With agricultural exports a priority for US negotiators, the documents provide a valuable insight into the potential changes in store for the UK food industry. So what exactly do they say?
An emblematic issue of the US-UK trade talks, chlorine-treated chicken has been a point of contention for the US and the EU since the latter’s ban it in 1997 over food safety concerns.
It became a Brexit flashpoint in 2017 when Liam Fox suggested the UK would consider accepting chlorine-treated chicken as part of a US trade deal.
The new dossier reveals US officials encouraged the UK to maintain its “regulatory autonomy” from the EU during talks in November 2017, highlighting a “philosophical difference” between the US and EU approaches. They maintained the US food safety system was the “gold standard”.
Revealing an interest in expanding the practice into the UK, an official noted the UK had used chemical food washes in the past and “wondered if there would be an interest in bringing them back post-EU exit”.
The US recognised public concerns and offered to “share their public lines on chlorine-washed chicken to help inform the media narrative around the issue”. US ambassador to the UK Woody Johnson has previously said terms like “chlorinated chicken” had been deployed to cast American farming in the worst possible light.
Restrictions on agricultural chemicals such as pesticides are the source of most “angst” for the US, according to an official in June 2017.
That was when US officials expressed concern that EU regulations were incorrectly banning chemicals based on “hazard” rather than “exposure”, raising fears among US producers that pesticides could be prohibited in the future.
During the meetings, a US official referred to “the struggle to reapprove glyphosate in the EU” as an illustrative example. The chemical was almost banned in 2019 for its links to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Were the UK to fail to challenge existing European legislation, the official said, “the UK would obviously have the challenge of working out how it could face both ways (towards the EU and US)”.
When the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) released its summary of negotiating objectives in February this year, it included guarantees that “geographical indications” would not undermine market access for US products in the UK market.
Currently, US imports must use terms such as “imitation stilton” that are costly to enact and potentially reduce consumer demand.
Therefore, it is of little surprise that in July 2017, US officials “pressed the UK to move away from [the] current EU approach” due to concerns including a lack of “recourse for opposing parties to appeal against decisions to award new GI protection”.
A UK official noted the issue was “likely to emerge as a contentious issue as we seek a balance between a UK-EU and UK-US free trade deal”.
The US voiced concerns over British food labelling at a meeting in November 2017.
A US representative said it was “concerned that labelling food with high sugar content (as has been done with tobacco) is not particularly useful in changing consumer behaviour”.
This is contrary to ongoing campaigns in the UK to improve awareness of food labels such as Change4Life and Eat Better Feel Better, which aim to tackle the causes of obesity.
The UK must currently provide clear labelling on nutritional information, potential allergens and food origin as mandated by EU law. A voluntary code for traffic light-coded food labels covering fat, salt and sugar was introduced in 2013.
Wine & spirits
Wine and spirits are breathing easy, with two agreements already in place to maintain the flow of trade after Brexit.
US officials said in February that the “continuity” deals would ensure there was no disruption after the UK leaves the European Union.
The dossier released this week shows the UK fought hard to maintain its existing regulations over wine as the US pushed back on demands “right up to the wire”.
Spirits including scotch and Irish whiskey will continue to receive their protected status.
The UK is the fourth-largest market for US wine exports, according to the Office of the US Trade Representative, while American whiskeys are also growing in popularity.