Tory ministers have been accused of quietly watering down farming laws after Brexit in a move that could make it easier to get a US trade deal.
Friends of the Earth raised the alarm over a change to how limits on antibiotics in farm animals will work after the transition period ends in December.
The EU sets ‘Maximum Residue Limits’, which control how much of a medicine, pesticide or other product is allowed to be present in an animal’s carcass.
Currently these EU limits are written into UK law.
But a little-noticed Brexit law, passed last year, said that in future the UK will set these limits behind closed doors – not in the letter of the law.
While the UK government has pledged it will keep all existing EU MRLs, it’s understood in future the UK will “set appropriate MRLs” of its own choosing.
Friends of the Earth warned the change could give “a blank slate to set new, weaker standards and water down our environmental protections”.
The current list includes an antibiotic called monensin, used in cows in the US but limited to 10 microgrammes per kilogram in beef fat here.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) insisted the limit on it will remain.
But Kierra Box of Friends of the Earth said: “Ministers keep saying that the UK standards we have now will remain, but this shows that promise just doesn’t wash.
“In fact, government have already deleted swathes of rules and restrictions, and are slipping through plans to set these ‘administratively’ in the future, which we know really means ‘behind closed doors’.
“Nobody who is across the detail of these plans has any faith that environmental standards are not at risk of being further weakened during trade negotiations with the US, Australia and wherever else we need to go, cap in hand.
“The simple fact is you can’t weaken protections that are already gone.”
Tory grandee and former Environment Secretary Lord Deben, formerly John Gummer, told the Mail there “does seem to an alteration of the current law.”
“The policy seems to be moving from complete prohibition to future decision-making by Ministers,” he said. “This is an extremely important issue for people’s health.”
Defra said the scientific method for establishing MRLs has not changed but accepted the UK could diverge from the EU in future.
An official said: “The legislative changes we have made will ensure that the UK can set appropriate MRLs and ensure that products for food-producing species can be made available on the UK market.
“Existing MRLs determined while we were in the EU will be retained.”
A Defra spokeswoman said: “We are absolutely committed to maintaining the stringent controls on the medicines that can be used for all animals, including food-producing ones, following the end of the Transition Period.
“This means the ban on Monensin as a growth promoter and other controlled substances will remain in place, helping to protect the health of people, animals and the environment.”