Note: This blog post is adapted from a twitter thread I posted on May 12 this year. Re-posting this as a blog post allows me to correct typos and potentially reach a wider audience of people who do not use twitter.
On Thursday 10 May Jacob Rees-Mogg appeared on the BBC’s Daily Politics programme alongside House of Lords crossbencher Lord Hennessy and Alison McGovern of the Labour Party. The host Jo Coburn asked him about food prices. See the clip below:
Unfortunately, both points raised by Jacob in this clip are incorrect. Firstly there isn’t a 10-year window under WTO rules that allow us to retain on our current trading arrangement with the EU. Jacob, or his advisers have misunderstood the context in which the 10-year period applies. Secondly the comparison between the price of sirloin steak in the United States and the UK is fundamentally flawed. It is not comparing like-for-like and the average price given in the report (£22.06/kg) is grossly inaccurate.
In the clip Jacob says “If you are in negotiation for a free trade agreement, you can maintain your existing standards for 10-years under WTO rules. So we have 10 years from the point at which we leave the EU to negotiate a free trade agreement which would mean we could carry on with our zero tariffs.”
The rules of the WTO are laid out in GATT (General Agreement Trade on Tariffs and Trade). Article XXIV of GATT covers Customs Unions and Free Trade Areas. They are slightly different types of Regional Trade Agreements which are the primary exceptions to the Most Favoured Nation rule laid out in Article 1 of GATT.
Jacob is labouring under a misapprehension. A gross misinterpretation of the context of an “understanding” note used to assist comprehension of the Treaty. Specifically the note shown below in an Ad Art to GATT Article XXIV:5. The 2nd paragraph says that the “reasonable length of time” referred to in Article XXIV should not normally exceed 10 years.
The “reasonable length of time” is found in Article XXIV is in para 5 sub-para c and refers back to sub-paras a & b on the formation of Customs Unions and Free Trade Areas respectively. It concerns how long interim arrangements of a new FTA/CU can operate as an exception to the Most Favoured Nation rule before they become established by treaty.
So this 10-year period has nothing whatsoever to do with any previously existing arrangement.
Apparently, as International Trade Law expect Lorand Bartels states in this tweet below, this faulty interpretation has been around for some time.
Let them eat steak!
To be honest Jacob Rees-Mogg is not to blame for the inaccuracy of this statistic here. But like the 10-year thing it’s the relish that something that apparently supports his argument is seized upon; in this case totally ignoring the substantive point made by the report i.e. we’re screwed; that gets me. It is symptomatic of the lack of fact-checking that has plagued this discourse for what seems an eternity now.
The first thing to say about this is that it seems no-one bothered to check whether choosing sirloin steak was a sensible cut of beef with which to make a transatlantic comparison. No-one seems to have been aware that American cuts of beef are completely different to British ones. Sirloin as we know it in the UK and sirloin in the United States are not the same thing at all.
The Wikipedia article “cut of beef” says that what Americans know as sirloin is what we in the UK call rump and that our sirloin is their short loin. However, I spoke to a local butcher in Brighton before writing and he told me it just wasn’t as simple as that. Because the animal is butchered so differently the different cuts are not at all analogous and it’s impossible to do a direct comparison.
Professor Benton told me that he got the £22.06 figure from Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) website. Seen below
The average price of sirloin steak given on this website, when I checked it on 12 May, was £22.08/kg. Note, in the UK sirloin is an expensive cut of beef, second only to fillet steak, with rump at £14.87/kg
What about sirloin steak the USA? I found this page on wholesale prices of beef. Important Note: it’s the wholesale price, not retail and it’s in $ per lb, not kilos! The important thing though is that it shows sirloin as the cheapest cut from the loin area.
So we’re not talking about the same thing at all. But what about the UK prices? Is £22.06 fair as an average? The first thing I did was go online and look at http://www.mysupermarket.co.uk/. This site compares prices across a range of major UK supermarkets to enable you to choose the best deal. I looked up sirloin steak on this site. It defaulted to ASDA and showed me the following page.
It showed 5 items of sirloin steak.
- £16.30 per kilo but on offer at £15.42/kg
- £14.00 per kilo
- £15.28 per kilo
- £16.20 per kilo.
Oh I skipped the 4th. That is priced at £22.05/kg, which is around the average price given by AHDB, however crucially the this ASDA steak is their Extra Special Aberdeen Angus Sirloin. It’s from a premium breed of beef cattle, but even so it’s only just over half the price of the maximum in the AHDB’s range for this cut. I can only imagine that £39.95 per kilo steak came from the Harrods’ food-hall or similar.
Also, 3 of the 5 listed items are being sold below the minimum price given by the AHDB (£15.42). Only one of those was on special-offer. Clearly the AHDB figure are completely unrepresentative. But I decided to make sure this wasn’t an aberration so a few of days later I went to check this out in person and visit a few supermarkets in Brighton.
Sainsbury’s 21-day matured sirloin at £19.11/kg. That’s below the average given of £22.06/kg
For reference I looked at rump steak too. £12.44 per kilo in Sainsbury’s again cheaper than the AHDB average price.
Next I went to a local butcher’s shop. Unfortunately he didn’t have any tickets out for sirloin steak, but he told me he was selling it as £17.99 per kilo. He had loads of rump steak though. It was priced £7.99 per kilo, that’s below the AHDB minimum price (£8.80) in their range for rump steak!
Co-op (don’t bother)
Then I went to the Co-op. They were all out of steak but the tickets were still on display. I have to say though their pricing strategy seems a bit weird. It was £17.62/kg (above AHDB average) for rump steak and £19.82 for rib-eye and sirloin.
Next I went to Iceland where I found sirloin steak at £17.65/kg for 21-day mature sirloin. Rump steak at £13.22/kg, That’s the best price so far for sirloin, though the butcher is still killing it on the rump steak.
Lastly I went to Aldi. They were the most well-stocked of the supermarkets I visited and crucially they had by far the best prices. 21-day matured sirloin steak at £13.28 per kilo! That’s 60% of the AHDB average price
But and get this — it’s £2 BELOW the minimum on the AHDB range (£15.49/kg). I asked AHDB how they were compiling their stats. This was their response.
I think their system needs to be reviewed. If I can find sirloin steak over £2 per kilo cheaper than the minimum in their range, and not on a special offer in a major retailer like Aldi then something is clearly wrong with it.
Aldi’s 28-day matured sirloin was only £14.76 per kilo and this is yet again below the minimum on the AHDB site.
And finally from Aldi, what’s this? Sirloin steak, dry-aged on the bone, for 21-days with Himalayan Salt, then further matured to 30 days (yes 30 days). From cattle sired from Pedigree Aberdeen Angus bulls (half AA?). Bronze winner 2017 Word Steak Challenge. £19.78/kilo!
In summary: Not once did I find any sirloin steak above the average price quoted in the report. Furthermore all of these steaks are probably a better cut than what’s labelled as sirloin in the US.
Why can’t people, the media or Parliament, anyone, do proper fact-checking?