Theresa Villiers’ recent pledge not to lower UK food standards regarding beef and chicken is a welcome reassurance to the UK Food & Drink and Farming sectors.

The huge parliamentary majority commanded by our new government means that it has the power to set the agenda and implement a new trading strategy for the UK over the next 5 years. Once Brexit is done, the government will turn its focus to the negotiation of new trade deals with the EU and also with the US, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

In the course of the UK’s trade negotiations, we will learn a lot about our nation’s strength in the international community. We are often cited as being the 5th largest national economy (not including the EU economy) and we must hope that this statistic stands up as our negotiators consider what they can pay and give away as a trade-off for what they want in these new trade deals.

Amongst these considerations will be whether the UK should diverge from EU rules on matters such as food safety and labelling (meat production being but one example) to give non-EU manufacturers better access to our market. Given the high standards the UK has achieved in this respect, it is right that we should be concerned about dropping these standards as it would allow cheaper products to enter the market and undercut UK and EU manufactured products, which are likely to have a higher cost base due to their adherence to stricter EU rules.

Thinking about this negotiation, the following statistics make for interesting reading:

  • The UK spends approximately £60 billion on imported food and drink (including alcohol) every year, which equates to approximately 50% of our annual overall spend on these products. Of that sum

    • £36 billion is imported from the EU,

    • £4.8 billion is imported from the US; and

    • £19.2 billion is imported from the rest of the world put together[i].

  • We export UK Produced food & drink products valued at £21.8 billion each year. Of this sum

    • £13.5 billion is exported to the EU;

    • £2.1 billion is exported to the US; and

    • £6.2 Billion is exported to the rest of the world[ii].

      The dominance of the EU market emphasised by these statistics makes diverging from EU rules a dangerous proposition for the food and drink sector. The amount of food we import from and export to the EU heavily outweighs, our reliance on the rest of the world. Upsetting that trading relationship, by diverging from the current regulatory regime (or agreeing the imposition of tarrifs) could therefore be a disaster for the food and drink sector – so let’s not chicken out, we can’t afford to.