‘CLEAR FOOD labelling’ should be enough to stop consumers from buying cheap, poor quality imports, declared a UK government minister, to be met by jeers from a room of angry farmers at the NFUS annual conference in Glasgow.

Parliamentary undersecretary of state at the Scotland Office, Douglas Ross MP, responded to calls for the UK Government to commit strict food standards to paper as a red line in future trade negotiations by claiming that consumers would ‘choose’ local produce.

“Ultimately It is up to the market, I’m reassured consumers will know what the best products are to purchase,” he said.

He remained committed to his position when pressed on the issue of foodbanks in Scotland and whether consumers would always be in a position to choose local produce.

“These products aren’t on the market yet, so people on low incomes are buying produce available at the moment, why would they switch? Labelling is crucial, it must be clear what, where and how food has been produced but I am extremely confident that when the public see that they will buy locally sourced Scottish and UK produce.”

Mr Ross’s comments confused farmers as only recently Defra secretary Theresa Villiers had pledged that no chlorine-washed chicken or hormone-treated beef would be allowed into the UK under any trade deal with the US.

However, the UK Agricultural Bill saw its second reading in parliament last week, with Boris Johnson’s government voting down a Labour amendment to the Bill that called for legal safeguards to protect farmers from cheap food imports produced to lower standards.

NFUS president Andrew McCornick urged Mr Ross not to ‘sell’ UK farming standards ‘down the river’: “If we’re going to allow product into this country that would be illegal for us to produce it’s not acceptable. That message needs to go back to whoever is negotiating these trade deals.”

In an attempt to appease the room, Mr Ross acknowledged that he had gauged the genuine concern from NFUS members and would feed it back to the UK Government. However, he once more insisted that farmers shouldn’t be worried about future imports:

“I hope there is confidence throughout the industry that the standards we produce our food to here and across the UK will weather any of these storms, as they are highly regarded across the globe.”

Rural economy secretary Fergus Ewing later responded to Mr Ross’s comments, accusing Defra of sending mixed messages to the industry around ‘equivalence’ of food standards.

“In previous discussions with Michael Gove he said in a trade bill there would be equivalence, that seems to have disappeared.

“We think it is imperative that there is equivalence of standards to imports, they should not be legally capable of coming into the UK unless demonstrated that they have been produced in accordance with same environmental standards. Otherwise our food security is imperilled and UK agriculture, in particular the meat sector is undermined,” he stressed.

Another topic of contention was around the issue of seasonal workers and in particular surrounding UK Government promises to extend the seasonal agricultural workers scheme to bring in 10,000 workers, up from the original total of 2500, for the year 2020.

When asked by NFUS soft fruits chairman James Porter to confirm if this increase would be this year or next, Mr Ross insisted that plans to extend the scheme would not apply until 2021.

Mr Porter replied, “Well that’s not going to work. Every piece of fruit and veg in this country is picked by manually skilled eastern Europeans. There isn’t the labour in Scotland to take up this work.”

A government spokesperson later overturned Mr Ross’s comment: “We have clarified with the Home Office who have now confirmed that the UK Government intends to make good the manifesto commitment to increase the seasonal agriculture worker pilot to 10,000 this year.”