Australia's free trade agreement with the UK will bring new quality products

06 April 2022 by

Welcome to the Australian larder. The new free trade agreement will unlock £10.4bn of additional trade and quality products from wagyu to toothfish

In December 2021 the UK and Australia signed an historic trade agreement (the UK's first from scratch since leaving the EU). According to a government press office, the deal is expected to unlock £10.4b of additional trade, boosting our economy and eliminating tariffs on 100% of UK exports to the country. Here Australia's high commissioner to the UK, George Brandis, and the trade and investment commissioner for the UK, Anastasia Nishnianidze, explain how it will work.

Could you tell us a bit more about the UK-Australia free-trade agreement?

George Brandis (GB): The trade agreement was signed in December 2021, and we expect it to come into operation in the middle of this year [after a Parliamentary process in Westminster]. It seems to have been very well received by MPs, so I don't think there will be any impediment to it being adopted – it will probably go to parliament around May 2022. It is a very comprehensive free-trade agreement, and by that I mean it removes over 99% of tariffs both ways. Australia will have duty free transitional quotas, with eventual elimination of all tariffs.

Australia is one of the world's great food exporters and as the UK can only produce a little over half of what it consumes, you have always been quite reliant on what you can import from overseas. Traditionally that has come from the EU, and that's likely to continue, but what the free-trade deal with Australia does is provide you with more options and more choice.

For example, we have excellent wagyu beef, incredible lamb, fruit and sugar. We are famous for our wine, but there's also spirits, like whisky from Victoria. There will be lots of opportunities for businesses to buy Australian products at lower prices and have a readier supply with lots more options at the high end – the level that restaurants will expect.

Do you feel that the UK hospitality industry has responded well to the new agreement?

GB: Here at the International Food and Drink Event, there has been lots of enthusiasm because of two things: consumers want a greater choice, and they want better value for money. The free-trade agreement with Australia will give them both of those things. Our food is produced in sustainable, ethical, environmentally friendly environments with very high standards, protection and animal welfare. So what you will get from Australia in greater volume than previously available is less expensive, better quality, ethical food and beverages which will expand the rate of choice.

It cuts both ways too, as there are many opportunities for UK farmers and producers to sell into the Australian market. Your products have a very good reputation in Australia. I can tell you that if you put a British label on a British product it immediately attracts a premium because Australians trust the quality of British food. I've spoken many times to the National Farmers' Union at its annual conference, and one of its great quotes is "we produce the best food in the world with the highest standards". That's right, you do, and as a result your producers and processors have a well-deserved reputation, so there are ample opportunities for British businesses.

What do you mean by better quality?GB: Well, take our beef, for example. Some of the cuts that will be available under the new agreement will be the highest quality beef in the world, as well as our mid-market good-quality cuts, which will make beef and lamb available at lower prices.

Anastasia Nishnianidze (AN): Our chef, who is here with us at the show, says how easy it is to cook Australian wagyu beef due to the quality of the product, and this is what we will supply to restaurants. Before the trade deal and because of the restrictions and tariffs, it was not really profitable for Australian exporters to supply wagyu, but now they can.

There has been some negative press around the quality and traceability of some Australian products, can you put these concerns to bed?

GB: I think there is a lot of misinformation around, with people wanting to protect vested interests, and the simple answer to your question is we will not export to your market goods that don't meet your standards.

Is it a myth that we will be lowering our standards in the UK by accepting Australian goods?

GB: That's an absolute myth. That is a pure piece of frankly, Vladimir Putin-level disinformation. Not only are you not lowering your standards, but we've established in the free trade agreement a series of consultative mechanisms whereby our industry associations and industry leaders and government agencies consult one another and are working together to raise the existing standards.

Let me give you an example of how this misinformation gets out there. In the UK there are rules and regulations about how many days a year an animal can be kept indoors, because you bring your animals indoors in the winter and they can be quite closely confined. It is said against Australia that for purposes of animal welfare, Australian animals are not as well looked after as in the UK. However, in Australia we don't have to bring our animals indoors in the winter, because it doesn't get cold enough, so there is no need of that regulation. Our animals are reared outdoors all year round.

AN: We also already work closely with the UK's Food Standards Agency. Australia is already the regulatory leader in Asia when it comes to food safety standards. Our consumers in Australia hold it very highly too.

How will the hospitality industry be able to access these Australian products?

GB: As the Rt Hon Anne-Marie Trevelyan MP, secretary of state for international trade and president of the Board of Trade, said to a group of business people at the Conservative party conference last month "It's her job to open the door and it's now everyone else's job to walk through it." That is what a trade agreement does – it removes barriers.

We obviously understand that's not all it takes to create a good working relationship, but we have willing sellers in Australia and your readers can now grasp those opportunities, via their chambers of commerce and industry associations, that this is now what is available via wholesalers and UK suppliers.

AN: We'll be engaging with the UK community via events with buyers and with an Australia food and drink road show, starting later this year, to introduce the products with tastings and exploration.

GB: This process will be as quick as it takes for people to get to know each other and understand the opportunities. One of the reasons this agreement is so important is because it removes quotas, and that means as Australia is such a long way away, the economies of scale hitherto have been difficult for Australian producers to bring products in sufficient quantity.

This will no longer be the case after the phase-in period, so we will be able to export in great bulk. Take sugar exporters, for example, previously they have only been able to ship about half a ship-load of sugar to the UK – which is not profitable for them. Under the new arrangements, we will be able to export bulk commodities, for example, cane sugar to producers in the UK, such as Tate & Lyle.

Is there demand for Australian products?

GB: Yes, we think so. Australia has a good reputation and the two peoples are very close. Lots of people in the UK have relatives in Australia or have visited, so it's like a promised land. Specific Australian products with an established reputation, like our red wine for example, are already well known and popular, so the wine producers can build on this reputation.

AN: We also share a lot of principles when it comes to food. The UK consumer looks for sustainably sourced, high-quality products and that's what Australian farmers have to offer. Our farmers have invested a lot into sustainability practices, technology and traceability.

Australian fisheries are using block chain technology to track their fish from the sea to the plate, and they are using one of the few hybrid shipping vessels to bring their emissions down. Avolution, an avocado supplier, is using data loggers called Escavox, which travels with its products to tracks temperature and quality to ensure the fruits stay in their best condition. Australians are very good at taking goods across long distances and we pride ourselves on this. Our wineries are also partnering with the Australian research organisation Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation to look at how wine is better adapted to a hotter climate and therefore requiring less water.

Will you employ UK chef ambassadors?

AN: Yes, we will be looking to do this in the coming months.

GB: As Anastasia said, that's something the Australian Trade and Investment Commission – Austrade – will be organising, but in the end the products will sell themselves as a result of quality, affordability and broader ethical considerations.

What are the hero Australian products?

GB: That's always a tricky one, but I've mentioned the high-end beef and the cuts of lamb – and don't forget we are a cyclical climate, so when you're in winter we'll be in summer – so our products will fill in your gaps.

AN : Avocados are an iconic Australian product and one of our most famous breakfasts is avocado on toast. Toothfish is another variety of fish found in Australia, in the Atlantic ocean near Perth.

Photo: Helen Jones

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