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Crucial Vote on British Food Standards Headlines the House of Commons

While Conservative ministers give their word on not allowing imports that compromise U.K. food safety, farmers want a clause that binds them to their promise

A farming tractor draped in a British flag in a protest outside the House of Commons
Gruel Britannia
WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto via Getty Images

MPs will vote on two amendments to the new Agriculture Bill today, both of which would swing laws on on food imports in farmers’ favour. Added to the bill by the House of Lords last month, they would stipulate that all agricultural imports meet existing U.K. food standards, and give the soon-to-be-formed Trade and Agriculture Commission oversight on all future agricultural and food-related trade deals.

Prime minister Boris Johnson and his normcore hypeman Dominic Cummings are whipping Conservative MPs to block the amendments, appealing to previous promises from ministers like Michael Gove and Liz Truss that no food imports will fall below U.K. food standards. This appeal to trust is compromised by the fact that the government previously voted down amendments to this effect, before refusing to deny that it would compromise U.K. food standards to sign a post-Brexit agricultural trade deal with the U.S.

High-profile food figures like Jamie Oliver and Prue Leith, the latter of whom voted for Brexit, have appealed to jingoistic rhetoric about British farmers being the best in the world in campaigning for the amendments, with the U.S. fondness for chlorine-washed chicken becoming an easily sparked lightning rod.

But chlorine-washed chicken is a problem not because of chlorine but because of the working and animal welfare conditions that necessitate its use. The use of chlorine is a necessary corrective to meat plants so densely packed that disease is common; the chlorine is supposed to kill infection after the fact. It doesn’t always work, with 2018 tests finding salmonella and listeria in treated meat, and new reporting from Channel 4’s Dispatches finding that “more than 60% of the pork products tested had E. coli on them, as did around 70% of beef products, 80% of chicken products, and more than 90% of turkey products.” It did not provide a sample size.

Chlorine washing is an animal and worker welfare issue long before it’s a food safety issue, and the chemical’s association with disinfectant and swimming pools sometimes inflates its minor role in a supply chain riddled with labour abuses and environmental destruction, whose working conditions have made it a hotspot for novel coronavirus transmission.

Similarly, U.K. supermarkets’ public rejection of the meat simply isn’t that big of a deal. Chlorinated chicken is most likely to enter the supply chain in food processing plants and meal production factories, in school and prison catering, in institutions where people literally don’t have a choice about what they eat and in products aimed at people who don’t have the financial resources to choose. Whether it’s a McDonald’s cheeseburger or raw chicken, the impact on the end consumer is never as significant as the impact on the animals and workers who produce the product.

Chlorinated chicken has always been a synecdoche for wider concerns about the U.S.’s ability to undercut U.K. farmers and the destiny of U.K. policy after Brexit. Currently, genetic modification, use of growth hormones, pesticides, and antibiotics have long prevented the U.S. from striking a deal with the EU, and more fundamentally, European law forces chemicals and practices to be tested for safety before use. U.S. law allows any dangerous practices to be accounted for after the damage is done. More philosophically, those opposed to Brexit see chlorinated chicken as a metaphor for everything to be lost, the security of consensus; those in favour see it as everything to be gained, a release from tyranny. Today’s vote will go a long way to determining which line of thought wins out.