Chlorinated chicken has become a lightning rod for fears that post-Brexit Britain could water down its regulatory standards in pursuit of trade deals.
These concerns center around a potential trade agreement with the US, the world’s largest poultry producer.
Lower regulatory standards allow the US to produce poultry at cheaper rates than most other countries, including the UK, where the poultry industry is worth over £7 billion (over $8.6 billion) a year.
Critics say American chickens are raised in cramped and unhygienic conditions and fed with hormones to make them larger.
They are also washed with chlorine or similar chemicals to remove bacteria, a practice banned in the EU in 1997 due to food safety concerns.
The EU and the US’ food standard rules are simply incompatible; where the EU has a precautionary principle that rules out food until it is proven safe, the US’ approach allows food until it is proven unsafe – and this incompatibility is not just limited to chickens.
The Guardian, a British daily, reported that the US meat industry uses hormones, steroids, and antibiotics; US processed foods are known to contain genetically modified ingredients; US milk allows double the level of somatic cells – that fight bacterial infection – than UK milk, and so contains more pus; and the US allows more pesticide residue on fruits and vegetables, including 72 chemicals banned in the EU.
“The US has a different approach to regulation than the EU; it is not necessarily more or less strict than the EU,” David Paton, professor of industrial economics at Nottingham University Business School, told Anadolu Agency.
“The UK government needs to be sure that it is not imposing unnecessary rules, which are designed to protect mainly EU producers, at the expense of consumers. They must be careful to look after UK farmers during any transition to a new regulatory framework.”
He said the UK must view safety as the key criteria, rather than focusing on a particular hygiene measure.
“UK exports will have to comply with what the EU chooses, but the UK should not and cannot commit to following another country’s precise regulations. That has to be a matter for the UK,” said Paton.
Sustain is a British charity that advocates for better food and farming to improve the health of both people and animals.
In 2018, the group found that food poisoning rates are up to 10 times higher in the US than the UK, and that increased food poisoning could raise deaths and cost the NHS and the UK economy at least £1 billion (over $1.2 billion) a year.
The higher rate of food poisoning in the US has raised speculation that chemical washes for animals just mask, rather than remove, bacteria.
In a statement at the time, Kath Dalmeny, chief executive of Sustain, said: “Our analysis shows that if we accept imported meat without robust standards, we may also import increased food poisoning and possibly even deaths.”
“The US is demanding we drop our food standards for trade, but our research shows cheap US meat will come at a cost to our health and economy.”
- ‘Hold the line’
In its 2019 manifesto, the Conservative Party pledged “to not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare, and food standards.”
In January this year, then-environment secretary Theresa Villiers said: “We will not be importing chlorinated chicken or hormone-treated beef, both are illegal under EU law which we will be importing into our domestic system. We have the commitment of the Prime Minister.”
That position, though, has now shifted.
Backbench Conservative MPs attempted to amend an agriculture bill that would enshrine their 2019 manifesto commitment and ban chlorinated chicken imports – but the move was defeated by the rest of the government’s lawmakers.
Nick von Westenholz, director of EU Exit and International Trade at the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), told Anadolu Agency: “We know that the government made a manifesto commitment not to compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare, and food standards in trade negotiations, and this commitment is explicitly stated in the government’s specific objectives for the US negotiations.”
“We hope the government will continue to hold the line on these issues in any trade negotiations as they have repeatedly committed.”
Sam Ette, media manager at NFU, said there was a “risk” that imported food produced through lower standards could “undercut British farmers and make them less competitive.”
“In the UK we have a farm-to-fork approach that has incredibly high standards. That’s what we want to be the benchmark,” he said.
- ‘Morally bankrupt’
The issue of chlorinated chicken is almost as old as the issue of Brexit itself.
At the NFU’s annual conference last February, Minette Batters, the union’s president, said: “This isn't just about chlorinated chicken. This is about a wider principle. We must not tie the hands of British farmers to the highest rung of the standards ladder, while waving through food imports which may not even reach the bottom rung.”
“To sign up to a trade deal which results in opening our ports, shelves, and fridges to food which would be illegal to produce here would not only be morally bankrupt, it would be the work of the insane.”
On this issue, Professor Paton of Nottingham University told Anadolu Agency: “Countries should only do trade deals if they are mutually beneficial. The UK and US seem to be approaching negotiations in that light.”
“It is really up to the EU to decide if it wants a mutually beneficial deal with the UK. No one can force it to. The indications are that the EU is not really interested unless the UK agrees to put its laws and regulations under EU control. If so, the UK is right to prioritize deals with other countries,” he said.
This month, over one million people signed an NFU petition calling on the government to prevent import of food that does not meet the UK’s production standards.
For the union’s president, the support “is a clear signal of how passionate the British public are about this issue.”
“Trade policy is complicated, but what the public are telling us is quite simple,” said Batters.
“They do not want to see chlorinated chicken or hormone-fed beef on their supermarket shelves and nor do they want to see food imported which has been produced in lower welfare or environmental systems than is legally allowed in this country.”
She called for the introduction of an independent Trade, Food, and Farming Standards Commission that would review trade policy and ensure food imports are held to the same standards expected of British farmers.
“These are decisions that will leave a legacy for decades and generations to come. It is so important that we get this right. Access to safe, traceable, affordable, and nutritious food produced to the highest standards should be a right for all,” said Batters.
“We must not throw that away in the pursuit of free trade.”