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Food policy experts warn: US hormone-treated beef could hit UK post-Brexit

Zoom in font  Zoom out font Published: 2018-09-10  Views: 58
Core Tip: Food policy experts are warning consumers and the UK meat industry about the chance of US hormone-treated beef entering the UK once it has left the European Union.
 Food policy experts are warning consumers and the UK meat industry about the chance of US hormone-treated beef entering the UK once it has left the European Union. They claim that this is a real possibility unless British ministers pledge to maintain the same high level of food safety standards currently in place as part of the EU. If the UK does nothing, the professors claim the UK market could be “flooded” with hormone-treated meat because there are already signs that government ministers would be willing to sacrifice food standards to win trade agreements with non-EU states like the US – and this would mean UK shoppers could be “left in the dark” about what they are eating.
The new report – entitled “Hormone-treated beef: Should Britain accept it after Brexit?” – claims 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. If the standards were lowered, the meat will not be labeled to say how it had been produced.
Instead, the authors – Professor Erik Millstone, Emeritus of Science Policy at the University of Sussex’s Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) and Professor of Food Policy at the Centre for Food Policy, City, University of London, Tim Lang – make a series of recommendations including: 
- UK Government should ensure either that food standards remain fully aligned with EU standards, or that higher standards are adopted.
- Food standards should not be sacrificed to facilitate trade in undesirable and/or unsafe products.
- The Government should explicitly acknowledge that any weakening of UK food standards, such as permitting the sale of hormone-reared beef, will result in barriers to UK food companies wishing to export their products to the EU’s Single Market.
- The UK consumer movement should strongly resist moves to weaken current levels of consumer protection as part of future trade deals.
In addition, they also recommend, that UK food and farming industries should publicly commit themselves to producing and selling only beef from cattle never treated with synthetic hormones.

Professor Millstone explains why relaxing safety standards post-Brexit is not an option and calls on ministers to ensure that food safety standards in the UK will never be weakened, especially not as a bargaining chip in trade talks.

“Some ministers clearly want to use Brexit as an opportunity to liberalize UK regulations, to facilitate a free trade deal between the UK and, for example, the US and Australia,” he says. “We are not part of any conspiracy; we are just trying to help the UK citizens and public to know what might happen after Brexit if the government is not subject to careful and comprehensive public accountability.”

“Our motivation is to alert the UK public and the food industry to the dangers that a hard Brexit could pose to UK food security and to try to shift the approach of the UK government and to try to ensure that Brexit does not result in lowering UK food standards.”

“The current political situation in the UK is so unstable and uncertain that I do not have clear expectations; instead my colleagues and I are trying to introduce some facts and direction into the debates.”

If the UK were to maintain EU standards or raise UK standards even higher, then hormone-produced beef would remain prohibited. Hormone use is permitted in cattle rearing by US, Canadian, Mexican and Australian authorities but beef from hormone-treated cattle has been banned in the EU since the mid-1980s.

“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 Organization’s? If UK products don’t match their standards, they won’t buy them,” adds Professor Millstone.

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

What would the UK government have to do after leaving the EU to ensure that the UK policy is indeed in line with the EU standard? Professor Millstone says that all that would need to happen is for the government to keep UK standards at least as high as those in the EU, or higher, but, he believes, that would be contested by some Conservative Party MPs and even some cabinet ministers.

Background to hormone-treated meat
All mammals have natural hormones circulating in their bodies, but in the US almost all beef cattle receive hormone supplements as fat-soluble pellets implanted under the skin. The six hormones administered to beef cattle in the US (but prohibited in the EU) are 17β-oestradiol, progesterone, testosterone, zeranol, trenbolone acetate and melengestrol acetate.

Supplementary synthetic hormones are used in high-intensity beef production systems, where treated cattle gain weight faster for a given amount of food, so reach their slaughter weight at slightly lower cost.

The use of synthetic hormones occurs most frequently in the US in so-called “feedlot systems,” where cattle are confined in large sheds or crowded outdoor “lots” for around six months during which they are rapidly fattened on grain-based diets to slaughter weight. Fundamental animal welfare problems associated with feedlots include muddy conditions, poor cattle handling and heat stress. Grain-based diets can lead to severe digestive and other health problems for cattle.

Professor Tim Lang adds: “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.”

Public Health England (PHE), the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and Environment Agency (EA), whose role is to protect standards, will require a significant increase in funding to cope, something which no minister has committed to so far, says the report.

The Food Research Collaboration has published the report – a UK initiative bringing together academics and civil society organizations to improve the production, sharing and use of evidence-based knowledge to underpin food policy that supports health, equity and sustainability. It is funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and based at the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London.



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