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US food imported in post-Brexit trade deal 'must meet UK standards'

American food imported under any post-Brexit free trade deal with the United States will have to meet British standards, the Environment Secretary has said.

Andrea Leadsom sought to dispel fears that the Government could water down its own protections to make it easier to strike a trade agreement with the US, which is perceived to have lower environment and food safety standards.

She insisted the Government would stick to a Conservative manifesto commitment to maintain animal welfare standards in international trade deals.

And she backed the continuation of the UK's Red Tractor kitemark, which confirms food has been independently checked and meets standards on traceability, safety and hygiene, animal welfare and environmental protection.

Answering questions following a speech to the National Farmers Union (NFU) conference in Birmingham, Ms Leadsom said: "In terms of the free trade agreement and particularly the reference to the Atlantic and the Red Tractor - I'm a huge fan of the Red Tractor, and there's absolutely nothing that's going to knock that into a ditch as far as I'm concerned.

"And of course food standards are key, I already mentioned in my speech we have a manifesto commitment on animal welfare standards in international free trade agreements.

"We will remain committed to ensuring a level playing field to our high standards."

Ms Leadsom also indicated that the Government is looking at ways to encourage technological innovation to reduce the reliance of Britain's farming and food processing industries on seasonal workers from the EU.

The Environment Secretary said she recognised the importance of seasonal agricultural workers but stressed that a desire for tighter immigration control was a driving force behind the Brexit vote.

In her speech, Ms Leadsom said: "As for seasonal agricultural workers, I have heard loud and clear the vital role they play in many farm businesses, not least in the horticultural sector.

"But at the same time we mustn't forget that a key factor behind the vote to leave the EU was to control immigration.

"So I want to find out what kind of labour you need in food processing as well as farming, whilst exploring the role that innovation can play in support of this."

On American food imports, a source close to Ms Leadsom said she was reiterating the Tories' 2015 manifesto commitment that high animal welfare standards will be incorporated into future trade deals.

Ms Leadsom admitted she does not yet have the "final answers" for farmers worried about Brexit's impact on direct payments from the EU, seasonal worker immigration and access to the single market.

She went on: "I want to be clear that as a major contributor to the UK economy, contributing close to £110 billion each year, there is no doubt that there will be support for our vital food and farming industry after we leave the EU.

"But I'm not going to stand here today and pre-empt the work the Government is doing to get the best possible deal for the UK, those negotiations will take time and change is of course inevitable.

"But I want you to know that I will fight your corner at every opportunity and fight for the huge contribution you make to our communities, to our environment and to our economy."

A Downing Street spokesman said: "We are committed to maintaining the already very high standards of food safety and hygiene that we have. When we leave the European Union, when we feel able to, we will be able to enhance those."

The Environment Secretary also said she had secured an agreement from the Treasury to offer a 75% bridging payment to 4,000 farmers still waiting for payments under the EU Common Agricultural Policy, following errors at her Department for Environment and Rural Affairs.

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