East Anglia’s farming leaders have welcomed a government pledge to create a trade and agriculture commission as a “major step forward” in the campaign to protect the industry from cheap, low-quality food imports.

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has been lobbying for an independent commission to review trade policy and ensure all imports are held to the same food quality, animal welfare and environmental standards expected of British farmers.

Rural business and conservation groups are concerned that UK farmers could be undermined by products that would be illegal to produce here, such as chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-fed beef.

The campaign resulted in more than a million people signing an online NFU petition to protect UK food standards.

In a letter to NFU president Minette Batters, international trade secretary and South West Norfolk MP Liz Truss says the government has agreed “in principle” to the establishment of an advisory trade and agriculture commission, which can make recommendations including “considering the policies that the government should adopt in free trade agreements to ensure UK farmers do not face unfair competition and that their high animal welfare and production standards are not undermined”.

It should also look at reflecting consumer interests, and those of developing countries, how to work with the World Trade Organisation to help push higher animal welfare standards across the world, and how to develop trade policy that opens up new export opportunities for UK agricultural industry, she says.

NFU East Anglia regional director Rachel Carrington said: “This represents a major step forward in the campaign to protect our high food and farming standards – standards which have overwhelming public support.

“It’s great news for farmers across the region, for everyone who signed our petition and who contacted their MP. We now need to see exactly what is proposed for the new commission and we look forward to working with government and other stakeholders on shaping those terms of reference.”

READ MORE: Don’t allow trade deals to undermine our food standards, plead Norfolk farmersMs Batters said: “I am very pleased that the government is taking concrete action to address the challenges of safeguarding our high food and farming standards by agreeing to set up a trade and agriculture commission, something we first called for over 18 months ago. This is a hugely important development.

“We look forward to working with government and other stakeholders in the days ahead on the commission’s terms of reference, to ensure that its work is genuinely valuable. In particular, it will be vital that Parliament is able to properly consider the commission’s recommendations and can ensure government implements them effectively.”