Britain is prepared to permit imports of chlorinated chicken from the US but will slap high tariffs on cheaply-produced food in order to minimise the impact on British farmers.
The latest Government proposal for a trade deal with the US is for a “dual tariff” regime that imposes different levels of duty on imported foods, depending on whether they comply with UK animal welfare standards.
Hormone-fed beef, chlorinated chicken and other foods that use techniques banned in Britain will be allowed across the Atlantic, but ministers want to use tariffs to make it uneconomical for US producers to export them to the UK.
High-quality foods, such as organically-reared free range meat, would be subject to lower tariffs in order to encourage foreign producers to lift their animal welfare to British levels.
The National Farmers’ Union described the scheme as “a significant step forwards” because it would prevent the US from flooding the UK market with cheap food produced using techniques banned in Britain.
But Brexiteers will be concerned that British consumers will not see the benefits of Brexit in the form of cheaper food on supermarket shelves.
It represents a major victory for George Eustice, the Environment Secretary, over Liz Truss, the International Trade Secretary, with free marketeer Ms Truss having championed an alternative proposal that would have seen tariffs reduced to zero over 10 years.
The dual tariff proposal was adopted at a ministerial meeting on Monday and will be put to the US as part of the ongoing negotiations over a post-Brexit trade deal.
Donald Trump, the US President, is an opponent of tariffs and could reject the idea out of hand, but it is likely to become the standard offer to other countries as the UK continues to sign trade deals around the world.
Ministers are trying to achieve a balancing act of bringing down the cost of living for consumers through post-Brexit trade deals while at the same time protecting the interests of British farmers, who are at risk of being put out of business if they are undercut by foreign imports.
One Government source said: “The idea of a dual tariff regime is that the upper band would remove any economic advantage that foreign producers would gain through lower animal welfare standards.
“British farmers would also have a competitive advantage even with goods that are produced to high standards, because of the lower tariff regime applied to imports.”
The issue of chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef has become one of the central sticking points of US-UK trade talks.
The Government accepts such food is safe, but the reason American farmers wash chicken carcasses in chlorine is because they are battery farmed, making them more prone to disease.
British farmers have argued that it would be grossly unfair to allow foreign imports of foodstuffs that would undercut domestic goods on price because of the fact that they are produced in a way that is banned in the UK.
Minette Batters, the President of the National Farmers Union, told The Telegraph: “It’s a significant step forwards that the Government has recognised the damage it would do to our farmers, who have to abide by the highest rung of the ladder, if we import food that wouldn’t even get on the lowest rung of the ladder when it comes to food standards.
“But we would call on the Government once again to accept the need for an independent food and farming standards commission to look at the proposals for trade deals.
“There has been an ongoing disagreement between Defra [the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] and the Department of International Trade which is why we need a standalone bridge that can advise the Government.”