‘An unnecessary and unacceptable risk’: Food policy experts warn on hormone-treated beef after Brexit

By Katy Askew contact

- Last updated on GMT

Fresh warnings over food safety trade-off in post-Brexit deal with US ©iStock/DigitalZombie
Fresh warnings over food safety trade-off in post-Brexit deal with US ©iStock/DigitalZombie
UK food policy experts have warned the UK could be “flooded” with hormone-treated beef after the country leaves the European Union next year.

Writing in a new report, Hormone-treated beef: Should Britain accept it after Brexit?​, Professor Erik Millstone, of the University of Sussex, and Professor Tim Lang of City University London, suggested shoppers could be forced to consume “hazardous”​ hormone-treated beef if a “weakened”​ UK makes concessions on food standards in order to secure a trade deal with countries outside the EU such as the US.

Consumers ‘kept in the dark’

According to the academics, there are already signs that some government ministers would be willing to sacrifice food standards in order to win trade deals after Brexit. The report suggested that if the UK’s food standards were weakened in exchange, for example, for lower tariffs on steel, one effect will be that beef from cattle given growth-boosting hormones could enter the UK food supply.

Importantly, consumers would be “kept in the dark”​ over the issue because, if standards were lowered, the meat will not be labelled to say how it had been produced. Meanwhile, hormone-produced beef would remain unlawful in the EU. “It might even provoke a boycott of beef in and from the UK,”​ the report suggested.

Legalising hormone-reared beef would introduce “an unnecessary and unacceptable risk”​ to public health, the authors argue. They call on ministers to ensure that food safety standards in the UK will never be weakened, especially not as a bargaining chip in trade talks. The authors also urge UK farmers, supermarkets and butchers to make explicit commitments to consumers never to produce or sell hormone-treated beef.

“The idea that, once the UK leaves the EU, it will become a rule-maker, not a rule-taker, is illusory. Exporting to other countries requires accepting their standards. The choice is: Which rules to take - the EU’s, the USA’s or the World Trade Organisation’s? If UK products don’t match their standards, they won’t buy them,”​ Millstone stressed.

“Trade requires shared rules and minimum standards. Food standards in the EU are far higher than those in the USA, and US standards are far higher than WTO standards. The UK should at least stick to EU; the only changes allowed should be to make food safer, never less safe.”

A ‘triple threat’ to health, farmers and sovereignty

Hormone use is permitted in cattle rearing by US, Canadian, Mexican and Australian authorities but beef from hormone-treated cattle is prohibited in the EU.

Starting in 1981, the EU adopted restrictions on livestock production limiting the use of natural hormones to therapeutic purposes, banning the use of synthetic hormones, and prohibiting imports of animals and meat from animals that have been administered the hormones. In 1989, the EU fully implemented its ban on imports of meat and meat products from animals treated with growth promotants.

This decision has sparked a long-running trade dispute between the EU and US, with the EU claiming the ban is due to concerns over the implication of consumption on population health. The US insists the ban is a protectionist move that breaches the EU’s WTO commitments.

Commenting on the report, Lang stressed that any concession on hormone treated beef to secure a trade deal with the US represented a “triple threat”.

“The UK Government should ensure either that food standards remain fully aligned with EU standards, or that we adopt higher standards. There is a triple risk here: to health, to British beef farmers’ livelihoods, and to the UK’s ability to determine its own food safety standards. Hormone use is a test case for whether the UK seeks a more sustainable food supply. Hormone use would be a stupid step towards intensive beef feeding lots.”

This is not the first row to erupt over food standards post Brexit. Earlier this year, a trip to the US by Trade Secretary Dr Liam Fox was overshadowed by claims that the US would demand access to the UK market for its chlorine-treated chicken and hormone-treated beef. 

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