Reports over the weekend raised the prospect that free trade negotiations in the wake of Brexit could see the US push for changes to regulations governing the quality of dairy products on sale in UK supermarkets.
According to an investigation by national newspaper i and Unearthed, the investigative arm of campaign group Greenpeace, the US dairy industry is targeting rules on the number of somatic cells allowed in milk.
The majority of somatic cells are leukocytes (white blood cells) - which become present in increasing numbers in milk usually as an immune response to a mastitis-causing pathogen. The somatic cell count (SCC) also includes a number of epithelial cells, which are milk-producing cells shed from inside of the udder when an infection occurs.
American rules allow an SCC that is almost double the level permitted in milk in the UK and the EU – 750,000 cells/ml as opposed to 400,000 cells/ml.
The news prompted some to speculate that Liam Fox, the MP in charge of the Department for International Trade (DIT) and tasked with developing trade agreements in the wake of Brexit, will come under pressure to allow milk with a higher SCC into the UK in order to open up the UK’s dairy market to US producers.
However, a spokesperson for DIT told FoodNavigator that this is not on the cards and confirmed the stance previously taken by Defra minister Michael Gove that food standards will not be lowered as a consequence of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.
“The government is aligned in that respect. It is just speculation given that we can’t start negotiating and new trade deals… It is early days, but we have ruled out any lowering of standards.”
What does US dairy want?
US dairy organisations have indeed been in contact with the Trump Administration and trade opportunities are under discussion, Jaime Castaneda, vice president of the US Dairy Export Council (USDEC) and National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) told FoodNavigator.
However, Castaneda said that this was “one of many areas” that USDEC and NMPF are working on. “We know Brexit is an ongoing discussion,” he noted.
“We are intrigued by the opportunity of engaging with the UK on a free trade agreement. We want to have an agreement with someone in Europe that is more progressive. The UK is, in our view, fighting Brussels on regulation.”
Castaneda outlined two key policies that the US dairy sector is interested in: geographical indications (GIs) and “science-based” food regulations.
“Having an agreement with the US won’t lower anybody’s [food safety] standards. In the US [we have] science-based standards that mean something [and are] not the result of pandering to pressure groups… Science is where you need to focus and be outcome based.”
While the shape of the UK’s future relationship with the EU is still being hammered out in negotiations between London and Brussels, Castaneda believes that if the UK acquiesces to regulatory alignment with the EU to remain in the customs union, a tree trade deal with the US would be off the table.
“The UK can still have a bi-lateral agreement with the EU but that doesn’t mean if Brussels says ‘implement this’ Britain has to,” he argued.