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US ‘confused’ by UK fears over NHS and US food in trade deals

Tom Belger
Finance and policy reporter
Carolyn Fairbairn, director general of the Confederation of British Industry. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

The US “doesn’t really understand” British fears that a trade deal could threaten the NHS and British food standards, according to British business chiefs.

Carolyn Fairbairn, director general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), said it was possible and vital to build understanding in the US now to smooth future trade talks.

Speaking at the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) conference on Tuesday, she said past Brexit talks been undermined by “very unhelpful” levels of misunderstanding between Britain and the EU. Britain had to learn from such problems in upcoming talks with the US, she suggested.

Fairbairn said her own talks with US business chiefs earlier this month had shown that taking the time to explain British concerns on food and healthcare could “change the tone of the conversation.”

“They don’t really understand why we care so much about the NHS. We have to explain things,” she said on a panel at the conference in Birmingham.

Responding to a question from Yahoo Finance UK in a press conference, she added: “The picture on the US side is that drugs companies are getting a really bad deal, with US patients subsidising UK patients.”

Read more: Farmers sound warning as minister fails to rule out chlorinated chicken

But she said business leaders were more able to appreciate UK concerns when she set out the values underpinning Britain’s universal, “free at the point of use” healthcare system.

Minette Batters, the NFU’s president who appeared alongside her on the panel, also went to Washington with Fairbairn for the business summit in February.

She said US trade and agriculture officials, like the American business chiefs, were “quite confused about what we’re all about and what Brexit means.”

Officials were surprised when she talked about Britain’s aspiration for higher farming standards after Brexit. One apparently replied: ‘I thought you were leaving all of that?”

Read more: Firms demand ‘seat at the table’ in post-Brexit trade deals

Batters also shared her “slight frustration” that conversations often focused on chlorinated chicken. “When you delve down under that and have conversation about values and what we want to be in the world, there is a lot of agreement.”

She highlighted opportunities from a US trade deal, noting Britain already exported £22bn in food and drink products such as pork to the US.

But she had warned earlier in a speech that the government would be “morally bankrupt” to let global trade deals undermine UK food standards.

Batters said fears over chlorinated chicken imports were not “mumbo-jumbo,” after a minister failed to explicitly rule them out over the weekend.

“To sign up to a trade deal that results in opening our ports, shelves, and fridges to food that would be illegal to produce here would not only be morally bankrupt, it would be the work of the insane,” she told NFU delegates on Tuesday.

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