The new boss of Waitrose has joined farmers and food campaigners in urging the government to protect food standards in post-Brexit trade deals.
James Bailey, who joined Waitrose from Sainsbury’s in April, said any regression from current high standards in the UK would be an unacceptable backwards step and pledged that Waitrose would not sell any products that did not meet its own standards.
“It would be simply wrong to maintain high standards at home yet import food from overseas that has been produced to lower standards. We would be closing our eyes to a problem that exists in another part of the world and to animals who are out of our sight and our minds. I feel sure customers will share our view,” he said.
Bailey’s intervention comes after more than a million people signed a petition calling for a ban on cheaply produced imports in post-Brexit trade deals.
The petition is part of efforts by the National Farmers Union (NFU) to ensure that imports should not be allowed of foods – such as chlorinated chicken and hormone-injected beef – produced to lower standards than those expected of UK farmers.
While advocates of reducing welfare standards argue that British shoppers should be allowed to choose what they want and benefit from potentially lower prices, UK farmers argue they will not be able to compete in a race to the bottom on food standards and shoppers will also lose out.
A coalition of organisations, led by the NFU, failed to secure amendments in the Commons to the agriculture bill last month to protect UK farmers and producers from lower-quality imports from countries like the US.
Rejecting amendments in the agriculture bill, MPs said the standards of imported food were a matter for the trade bill, which has just begun its passage through parliament.
Dave Lewis, the boss of Tesco, has also ruled out selling chlorinated chicken from the US, saying the supermarket’s customer research had found shoppers did not want to bring back farming and food processing techniques that Britain had phased out because of concerns about animal welfare and food safety.
He said Tesco would look at the terms of any trade deal for “opportunities” but “what we won’t do is give up our standards”.
Morrisons said it only sold fresh meat produced in the UK and if any decision needed to be made on a change it would consult shoppers. Sainsbury’s said it remained “committed to offering our customers the best possible choice, quality and value while continuing to uphold our high standards”.