Richard Griffiths, Chief Executive of the British Poultry Council, rejects the notion that we should lower food safety standards for post-Brexit trade deals.
With economic and social pressures being created by Brexit, access to food is likely to become one of our nation's biggest challenges in the coming years, and should be recognised as such. Being able to feed ourselves in the future is a fundamental for the UK and should make us proud.
In the debate so far on British food there has been little appreciation of the potential impact on the economy, jobs, rural communities, or on food security. There is no pride expressed about British business or British food by those desperate to depart the EU, which seems out of step with the original sentiment behind Brexit and general popular sentiment since the referendum.
We need to decide what is the patriotic value of British food, and how sternly we defend the standards that have been hard-won through years of experience. It also means the UK taking a lead in setting global standards, and not being afraid of competition from abroad. If the mission of Britain is to lead, then we must find that pride in both producing good food and feeding our people.
The basic human needs of food and water, shelter, and warmth are reflected in some of the most pressing issues our society is facing: food security, access to housing, and quality healthcare. Pressing because the proportion of people struggling in any or all of these is areas is growing, and there is no doubt that lack in one will lead to problems in the others. At a time when 60% of people living in poverty in the UK live in a household where someone is in work (Cardiff University), we are seeing new and unexpected social groups struggling to provide the basics for their families.
Food poverty is on the increase. Foodbanks run by the Trussell Trust reported nearly 1.2 million three-day food supplies given out between April 2016 and March 2017, an increase on the previous year of 6%. While people use food banks for a variety of reasons, it does highlight a question for Britain's food producers. If we are serious about providing food security for the nation, then how do we include both the most vulnerable of our citizens, and also those most in need?
As food producers, we talk a lot about British values and standards in livestock production: animal welfare, providing safe food, environmental stewardship, provenance of food, job creation, the economy, and supporting rural communities. These are good measures of how well we produce food, but above all of them is the over-riding need to feed ourselves. There’s no better feeling than being able to provide for ourselves; our family, our community, our society. When it comes to putting food on the tables of the nation, we must be able to stand on our own two feet, through working hard and producing great British food to the values that we hold. Everybody has a right to safe, wholesome, and nutritious food. Where there is a right, there also exists a duty, and the duty in this case is for Government and industry to deliver plentiful affordable food for today and our post-Brexit future. But there is a balance to be struck.
One end of the food scale attaches no qualities and solely focuses on price. We have seen, in discussions over a trade deal with the US, that British standards have not been championed and 'chlorine-washed chicken' has become the ultimate expression of cheap food. This cheap food may be piled-high right now, but the major fear, quite aside from production standards, is whether long-term security can be achieved by importing food from half way round the world. Those at this end believe that consumption without thought or limits is the ultimate expression of trade liberalisation. This undermines the integrity of the UK supply chain and our consumers who demand to know where their meat has come from.
The other end of the food scale attaches qualities to food that are mostly aspirational, and in doing so puts the price of food out of reach of an average, let alone a struggling, consumer. This movement is often represented through free-range and organic labels, and by those who have the luxury of time and disposable income to focus on single issues, such as animal welfare.
Thankfully, the choice is not yet between cheap food of unknown qualities and unaffordable food of unattainable qualities. There is a middle-ground, and one that has successfully been feeding the nation for decades while maintaining the British qualities and values. Brexit is making us re-affirm what we need from our food producers. Trade remains crucial for British food and British consumers, but it must reflect our needs and our standards. We want our Government to support our sector by ensuring access to labour, beneficial trade deals, and uptake of technology to improve productivity. Moreover, the British Government should back our standards by buying our food for British schools, hospitals, and armed forces. British food and farming sectors have a long and successful history in producing food that British consumers want to eat, with values they trust. If the Government backs us then British poultry meat producers can deliver.
Richard Griffiths, Chief Executive of the British Poultry Council