UK official: Maybe private US labeling would satisfy British consumers

After visiting pork, mushroom, dairy and produce companies in Pennsylvania recently, United Kingdom Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs George Eustice said in an interview that he believes British consumers might accept private labels that designate characteristics such as “no added hormones” and “committed to animal care.”

Eustice, who came to the United States to promote a free trade agreement between the United States and the United Kingdom, said in an interview at the British ambassador’s residence in Washington last week that when negotiating trade agreements “you have to put yourselves in the shoes of the guy in the other direction.”

The United Kingdom, he noted, has gone the route of government policy on labeling, particularly on animal welfare, while the United States has been on “a different journey” of “a vibrant private sector-led accreditation scheme.”

Eustice said he hopes to find a way of labeling “that is right for all parties” that would convince British consumers U.S. private labeling is equivalent to UK government labels.

If the UK would accept those private U.S. labels and U.S. products could enter the UK, that might ease the way for a U.S.-UK agreement.

U.S. industry officials also need “to put themselves in the position of the UK government and the consumers and the public,” he said. “We are quite a sentimental group – animal welfare in particular.”

Eustice said he met with, among others, Clemens, a pork producer, and Four Seasons, a produce company, as well as with big meat processors including Tyson’s and Cargill. On Capitol Hill, he had met with Rep. Lloyd Smucker, R-Pa.; Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee; Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., and had scheduled a meeting with House Agriculture Committee Chairman David Scott, D-Ga.

The UK government had hoped for a free trade agreement in the first part of the Biden administration, but realizes that the administration is focused on domestic priorities, Eustice said.

The Biden administration has a “collective position” emphasizing domestic priorities, but after a luncheon with Washington ag lobbyists, Eustice said he found “a big interest and appetite” for negotiating a trade agreement.

Eustice said he met with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and “reasserted our hope that our negotiations will resume at some point.”

Although British beef was long banned from the United States due to concerns about bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease, the United States has lifted the ban. The UK supplied about 60 to 70 million pounds of beef to the United States under a general quota, but this year Brazil has used up the quota.

The UK would like to export more Scotch whisky and dairy products as well as develop a market for British lamb, particularly among younger people, he said.

On issues surrounding genetic modification and gene editing, he said he believes the UK “is going to end up mid-Atlantic, somewhere between where the U.S. sits and the EU.” But he said UK officials want to make sure that gene editing is not treated like genetically modified foods.

On the impact of the war in Ukraine on British farmers, Eustice said that the farmers are watching the prices for grain and for fertilizer to see if they “have the confidence to sow.”

Eustice is also in charge of the scheme to replace the EU Common Agricultural Policy, which has been making payments of 3.5 billion pounds ($4.4 billion) to British farmers for decades. Eustice said the government plans to keep the farm budget about the same, at least initially, but replace the system of “land-based payments” with payments to help replace equipment and for sustainable farming, soil health, nutrient management, green cover crops and other measures to protect tree rows and reduce pesticide use. “It’s quite an exciting time to repurpose that budget,” he said.


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