The UK Public Health Network and PETRA jointly hosted a webinar on 17 June 2020. Senior Attorney at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy Sharon Treat identified the key public health issues that are central to the UK trade and investment negotiations currently underway:

1. Threats to UK food safety and environmental standards

The US sees European health and environmental standards as “trade barriers”. A priority for the US in engaging in negotiations with the UK/EU is to destroy the precautionary principle and replace it with the way the US operates. US Food Safety Standards are not necessarily informed by peer-reviewed scientific evidence. Instead, results from industry studies are often used to set safety standards. Usually, the companies conduct these studies when they want to support their claims that their products are compliant with USDA, EPA or FDA requirements. However, these agencies do not conduct independent reviews and the “scientific reports” often go unscrutinised. As a consequence, what influences regulators’ decisions very often are industry-funded and manipulated reports masquerading as “science”, and data hidden behind claims of “confidential business information”. The results of these regulations are post-slaughter chemical washes, such as chlorine instead of sanitation standards; livestock growth promotion drugs such as Ractopamine; regulation of genetically modified and gene-edited products; and dangerous pesticides allowed both in agricultural fields and as residue on food.

The ultimate goal of the US is not only to promote their exports but ultimately to change how other countries regulate. Chlorinated chicken has become an iconic example of the risks of the food standards from the US-UK trade deal, but the weakening of pesticide standards is equally concerning. The UK currently has some of the strongest pesticide regulations in the world; this is why many agricultural products produced elsewhere can’t be sold in the UK. A key objective of US negotiators is to lower UK pesticide standards. If this happens, there will be larger amounts of toxic pesticides in UK food and pesticides that the UK has banned for environmental reasons, such as bee-toxic neonicotinoids, risk being reauthorized. This could be catastrophic for UK farming, and the environment.

2. Is the NHS really off the table?

Another concerning US objective in these talks is that Britain’s NHS provides full market access for US medical products, pharmaceuticals, and drugs. The US will push for service commitments, medicine patent rules, and prescription drug pricing disciplines that would expand commercial control over healthcare delivery and increase medical costs. Although the UK negotiating objectives for a US-UK trade deal state that the NHS and drug prices are not on the table, negotiations often involve concessions, and nothing is certain until drafts of the trade deal can be scrutinized. Concessions on seemingly arcane provisions could have substantial cost implications that could affect NHS sustainability for decades to come.

3. Transparency and accountability

As with other post-Brexit trade deals, there are big questions about how a US trade deal will be negotiated and agreed, and how the public and civil society will be consulted. A combination of lack of transparency in the negotiating process, limited oversight by Parliament and pushing ahead to quickly negotiate multiple trade agreements, increases the risk that new trade agreements could harm rather than improve public health. These types of negotiations, which usually take several years, should now be wrapped up in a year.

Our key speaker, Sharon Treat, emphasized that slowing down negotiations is important, especially in the midst of a pandemic.

Alongside harming public health directly, these “rushed” trade agreements carry the risk of empowering private companies to challenge government actions that conflict with their interests. History has shown that such disputes often result in large pay-outs for alleged lost profits. The webinar emphasized that is essential that the trade deal receives proper democratic scrutiny to ensure that public health and environmental protection are a priority.

Our webinar generated much useful and interesting discussion, particularly around forming alliances between public health and environmental advocates to influence trade agreements and the importance of the precautionary principle. The UK Public Health Network will endeavour to encourage this alliance forming.

This web page (members only) includes links to the webinar recording, an abstract and a bibliography, which has the links to all the resources shared.

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