It’s been a tough few years for foodservice operators. Flatlining like-for-likes, rising rates, statutory living wage increases have all led to one outcome – the amount of revenue left after costs have been deducted keeps shrinking. Operators are required to walk a fine line between satisfying consumer demands for high standards of farming and animal welfare, and hitting a price point that will keep the customers walking through the door.

Our departure from the EU (yes, we have left now in case you didn’t notice) means that we are now free to negotiate and sign trade deals around the world. In the first instance, securing a UK-EU trade deal will be top a priority over the months ahead, but the government will also be interested in understanding what other trade possibilities exist at the same time, particularly from the US.

Trade can be made simpler and faster if countries have the same trade rules and of course, the closer the rules are, the less likely goods need to be checked to make sure they meet the required standard. But while free trade agreements aim to boost trade, too many cheap imports can threaten a country’s farmers and/or manufacturers/processors. So, in order to protect local producers, countries frequently impose tariffs on products from other parts of the world – and unsurprisingly, the UK is now “another part of the world” as far as the EU is concerned.

A little under a year ago the US government in Washington published its initial key objectives for a US-UK trade pact. These included “comprehensive market access” for its farmers’ products that would see much more US-made food in British supermarkets and Wholesalers catalogues.

European Union rules currently limit US exports on a wide range of food products, including chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-boosted beef. Now that we are free of EU trade rules, the US wants the UK to remove so-called “sanitary and physiosanitary” standards on imported goods. America’s National Farmers Union has always maintained that its chicken and beef, which uses processes banned by the EU, is “perfectly safe” and argues there has been a lot of “fear-mongering”. But its British counterpart, the National Farmers Union, said the UK government should not accept an American deal “which allows food to be imported into this country produced in ways which would be illegal here”.

Concurrently, one of the heroes of our sector, Leon Founder Henry Dimbleby is leading the task of resetting the UK’s Food Strategy - setting out what needs to be done – across all departments of government and in society more broadly – to build a robust food system that provides good affordable food to everyone; restores the environment; maintains our countryside; brings good jobs to our communities (rural and urban); and stops making us sick. In short, a system that we would be proud to leave for our children.

Henry has much to say about the importance of getting things right on imported food, and its starts from understanding the interdependency between the 60% or so of food that we produce within our own shores and the remainder that we import. At the recent Oxford Farming Conference he said:

“I believe……that we need to start framing the carbon problem as one of both production and consumption. The current production-only climate change targets make no sense. What is the point of doing the enormous amount of work required to create a net-zero farming economy here if we then just import that carbon from other countries? The same goes for animal welfare, biodiversity, and environmental pollution. We cannot only consider the externalities of food we produce here but must apply the same standards to food imports. It would be wrong to create a gold-standard for farming in this country and then incentivise those harms overseas in the form of lower standard food imports. It is a red line that as a society we must defend vigorously.”

But this week Boris Johnson warned that Britain will not follow any European Union rules in a new trade deal with Brussels, promising to walk away from negotiations without any deal whatsoever if necessary.

EU figures including European Commission President, Ursula Von Der Leyen, have said that Britain must sign up to a “level playing field” with the EU in order to secure tariff and quota-free access to European markets.

So, the battleground is set and the “standards clock” for the UK is set to zero. The governments own trade strategy appears to be at best inconsistent with the UK’s food strategy now emerging from DEFRA, the EU is making consistency of standards a condition of tariff and quota free access to the EU, and the US is making comprehensive market access a pre-condition of any trade deal. How we emerge from this process will probably determine the future of food and farming in the UK for the next generation. For operators this is a key moment too. A swing too much toward a free trade model with open standards might bring down the cost of food but destroy the very farming-hand that feeds us with the increasingly sustainable food that our diners increasingly demand. The opposite could completely reset consumers expectations on the cost and value of the food that we eat.

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