Last night, Monday 12 October, MPs voted against amendments to the new Agriculture Bill that would have enshrined current U.K. food standards as the minimum threshold for future trade deals. The vote went 328 — 277 against the amendments, with some Conservative MPs rebelling against the party citing the fact that its 2019 manifesto pledged to “not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.”
The government argument is that current food safety and standard regulations will be enshrined in the EU Withdrawal Act and then enshrined again in U.K. law at the end of the Brexit transition period in December 2020. But this certainty is compromised by persistent backsliding on its stance on U.S. meat, and the fact that has now twice voted down the enshrining of that stance in law. In June, ministers refused to deny that they would instead use high tariffs to tip the scale in favour of British farmers, while allowing U.S. products like chlorinated chicken and hormone-grown beef into U.K. markets.
The key disparity at issue is about the harmfulness of production methods. Under EU and U.K. law, manufacturers and processors of meat, fruit, vegetables, and chemicals used in agriculture are obliged to prove their safety before point of use. Under U.S. law, manufacturers do not have to provide this proof, and dangerous practices can be legally accounted for after the damage is done.
This disparity, and its severe consequences for workers, producers, and growers — orders of magnitude moreso than for end-consumers — has often been obscured in debates over the issue by easy lightning rods like chlorinated chicken. Chlorine-washed chicken is a problem not because of chlorine but because of the working and animal welfare conditions that necessitate its use. 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.
Further obfuscation has stemmed from prominent supermarkets promising not to stock chlorinated chicken and hormone-grown beef. This simply isn’t a big deal. Imported U.S. meat 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. This also goes against the government’s conviction that customers being able to read food labels means they can simply choose not to buy it — in many of these settings, labelling will not be stipulated or not even be available to the people eating the food.
The vote ironically coincided with the release of new reporting on bacteria in U.S. meat 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.
The bill will now return to the House of Lords for further debate, as part of the “ping pong” between Houses.