The Environment Secretary has refused to rule out chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef being imported from the US in a post-Brexit trade deal.
George Eustice also defended the Government’s new immigration system, after businesses raised fears of a shortage of workers.
His predecessor before the recent reshuffle had insisted controversial food products from the States would not be imported amid animal welfare and environmental fears.
But Mr Eustice, while saying there are “no plans” to change the law, did not explicitly rule it out when pressed three times on the subject.
With the Government expected to publish its negotiating position for a free trade deal with Washington within two weeks, he told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday that the Government would not “take risks” on standards of welfare.
But he said “lactic acid washes” are now more commonly used in the US than chlorine, which is unlikely to allay fears over animal welfare because concerns centre on treatment before the washes themselves.
“What I’m saying is we won’t make any moves on our standards, we’ve got a clear position in this country that it is illegal to sell chlorine-washed chicken, illegal to sell beef treated with hormones, we have no plans to change those things,” he said.
Consumer group Which? was highly-critical of the comments and demanded that ministers legislate to “ensure current high principles are preserved and reinforced in future trade deals”.
Sue Davies, its head of consumer protection and food policy, said: “It is astonishing that instead of improved food safety and health, chemical washing techniques for chicken and hormone-treated beef are still being left on the negotiating table when the debate has to be firmly focused on the food standards consumers want.”
National Farmers Union president Minette Batters called for the Government to add protections into law to prevent imports “that fails to meet our food safety, animal welfare and environmental standards”.
“If it doesn’t, it will not only fail our farmers but the public too, who quite rightly demand and expect these standards from our own farmers,” she added.
Labour’s shadow environment secretary Luke Pollard called for the Tories to introduce a ban on trade deals lowering welfare and environmental standards.
“Chlorinated chicken being sold in Britain is a genuine risk, unless this backdoor to lower standard US goods imports is closed and a ban is put into law,” he said.
Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrats’ food and rural affairs spokesman, accused the Conservatives of having backed down on their commitment.
“With the Tories’ desperation for a trade deal with Donald Trump, it would appear they are rolling back on their promises,” he said.
Theresa Villiers, who was relegated from leading the environment department to the backbenches in Boris Johnson’s reshuffle, had been explicit in January that the EU laws banning chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef would be adopted here.
“There are legal barriers to their import and those are going to stay in place,” she added.
After his major speech setting out his post-Brexit vision, Boris Johnson criticised “hysterical” coverage that described US food as “inferior”.
“I totally understand the concerns about chlorinated chicken because it’s not a hygiene issue it’s an animal welfare issue,” he added.
“And what we will do is use our negotiations to persuade our partners if they want to trade freely with us then they have to accept our approach to animal welfare.”
The Government’s immigration plans set out this week are designed to cut the number of low-skilled migrants entering the UK.
The plans have drawn criticism from businesses for choking off a supply of workers that they need to operate.
Mr Eustice, who used to run a strawberry farm, stressed a seasonal agricultural workers scheme will be an “important part of immigration policy in the future”.
He said there would be a quadrupling of the size of the scheme to 10,000 initially this year, but this still falls short of National Farmers’ Union calls for 70,000.
Mr Eustice said ministers would be working out a “fully fledged” programme for the future.
Home Secretary Priti Patel had suggested lower-skilled jobs could be filled by eight million people classed as “economically inactive”.
But she drew criticism after it was pointed out that the Office for National Statistics estimates most of these are students, long-term sick, carers or retired.
“I don’t think the Home Secretary was saying that all eight million of those people would be able to fill these, just that there are people there who might,” he told Sky.
Ministers are expected to recommit to seeking to obtain a Canada-style agreement with Brussels in the negotiating mandate scheduled for publication on Thursday.
But this could set up a clash with the EU after its chief negotiator Michel Barnier ruled out the possibility the UK could have the same deal as the North American nation.
While the UK formally left the EU on January 31 it is currently in a transition period until the end of the year during which it follows Brussels’ rules without having a say in how they are made.