Last reviewed 9 October 2019

Defra is facing “significant pressure” from the Department for International Trade (DIT) to weaken the UK’s food and environmental standards to secure a trade deal with the United States, according to a leaked document.

The document, prepared for Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers and leaked to Greenpeace’s Unearthed project, warns that the DIT will push Defra to “accommodate” American requests to lower the UK’s sanitary and phytosanitary standards (SPS) post-Brexit.

“Weakening our SPS regime to accommodate one trade partner could irreparably damage our ability to maintain UK animal, plant and public health, and reduce trust in our exports,” it reads.

The paper examines the impact of various post-Brexit scenarios on the UK’s food and environmental standards, stating that agreeing to US asks will severely limit Britain’s ability to negotiate an agreement with the EU and could lead to the EU imposing a hard border in Ireland to protect the single market.

Former Environment Secretary Michael Gove said that Defra would maintain high environmental standards. In a speech last February he said: “We have been clear — across Government, from the Prime Minister down — that we will not lower our standards in pursuit of trade deals, and that we will use all the tools at our disposal to make sure the standards are protected and you are not left at a competitive disadvantage.”

The DIT secretary says the UK should take “a free-market approach”. Speaking at a recent Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) Truss said: “So to me, of course one of the points is that we are working with countries with high standards, but it’s very dangerous and can lead to extra territoriality if you try and impose your regulatory system on another country,” she added.

Labour’s shadow Brexit Secretary Barry Gardiner told Unearthed that “trade agreements with the USA and Australia risk opening the floodgates to food imports produced to much lower standards. Their rules specify ‘acceptable levels’ of maggots in orange juice, rat droppings in ginger and hormone levels in beef. The right level should be zero”.

A Defra spokesman said the department did not comment on leaked documents. “The UK is a world leader on animal welfare and environmental standards, and this will only continue to improve after we have left the EU,” he told Unearthed.