Foreign food imports must be held to the UK’s high standards after Brexit to protect British farmers, the Ulster Farmers’ Union has warned.
It comes after reports that thousands of tonnes of cheap beef imports from South America could flow into the country in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
The Irish Farmers Journal reported on Wednesday that it had obtained documents which reveal proposals on future tariffs being put to Theresa May’s cabinet on for agreement this week.
It claims that – in a bid to keep food prices down – the government intends to offer a tariff rate quota on beef imports.
Under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules, countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Australia would have the same access to this tariff-free quota as EU countries, including the Irish Republic.
In effect, this could mean UK farmers could be left competing against much cheaper imported product.
When asked if it was concerned about the impact such a move could have on the farming sector in NI, the UFU said it has raised the matter with UK ministers and officials.
In a statement, the organisation said the government has a “duty to maintain UK food quality standards, whether we are in or out of the EU”.
It added: “We believe imports that do not match UK farming and processing standards are unacceptable for beef and other products. We will continue pressing this argument.
“Farmers do not fear competition on a level playground. Cheap imports would not meet that criterion. We also believe they could undermine efforts to maintain access to the EU-27 market after Brexit.
“We believe imports should have to match UK standards. Any move away from that would betray assurances given to farmers and consumers before and after the EU referendum vote.”
On Tuesday, Environment Secretary Michael Gove said British food standards will not be lowered “in pursuit of trade deals”.
He also vowed to minimise the risk that food producers will be left at “competitive disadvantage” in the face of cheaper tariff-free imports that are below EU standards.