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Government Wriggles Out of Pledge to Protect U.K. Food Standards in U.S. Trade Deals

Chlorinated chicken is at the centre of the story, but it’s a symbol of a wider stratification of food in the U.K. that would result

Rows of supermarket chicken
Chlorinated chicken is at the heart of concern over U.K. food standard
Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

The U.K. government has refused to deny that it will compromise U.K. food standards to secure a trade deal with the U.S.A, according to the Independent. This comes six months after it was elected on a manifesto pledging that “we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards,” and three weeks after it voted down amendments to the new Agriculture Bill that would have protected those standards.

U.K. ministers will reportedly allow U.S. foods that do not currently meet U.K. food standards into circulation, while imposing high tariffs designed to give farmers in this country a competitive advantage over products that they could not legally produce. Conversely, goods produced or meat reared to U.K. standards will be subject to lower tariffs, reportedly to encourage producers to raise their standards. Whether high U.K. tariffs will actually encourage vast, profitable, largely unregulated meat processors to improve their welfare will, like U.S. food regulation, be determined after the fact.

As well as reneging on manifesto pledges, the government has also repeatedly, strenuously denied the arrival of chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef. In January, 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 commitment of [the Prime Minister].” In March, a draft document for future negotiation indicated a lack of enthusiasm for American meat imports. While the National Farmers’ Union describes the proposed tariff system as a “step forward,” it continues to pressure the government, petitioning for all U.K. food imports to meet extant food standards.

In the case of chicken, 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. Chlorine washing is an animal welfare issue 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.

Comparing chlorinated chicken with high-welfare, carefully reared meat as a point of pride in U.K. production also obscures where and how these imports would enter the U.K. supply chain. They won’t replace free-range chickens and high-welfare meat found at boutique butchers and restaurants, but undercut already low-priced meat at supermarkets and in food processing, forcing those on lower incomes to bear the brunt of reduced food standards.

U.K. Food Standards follow the 1968 Trade Descriptions Act, which deems “the last substantial change” as a sufficient point at which to label a food’s provenance, as opposed to starting at its ingredients’ country of origin. This means that meat from the U.S. could be processed as part of a prepared food, like a sausage or burger, in the U.K. and then labelled as British. Currently, U.K. Food Standards only go as far as to offer “guidance” on clarifying such a situation, leaving a potential loophole to exploit.

A government spokesperson has said: “We have been clear that in all of our trade negotiations – including with the US in our first round of negotiations – that we will not undermine our high domestic environmental protection, animal welfare and food safety standards by ensuring in any agreement British farmers are always able to compete.” Ensuring competition against foods that do not meet those high standards does not appear to fully prevent their being undermined.

While it’s an easily recognisable symbol of the trade negotiations, chlorinated chicken has never been the real beef. It’s an easily recognised lightning rod for wider concerns about the U.S.’s ability to undercut U.K. farmers and the destiny of U.K. food policy after it formally exits the EU. Genetic modification, use of growth hormones, pesticides, and antibiotics have long prevented the U.S. from striking a food trade 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 regulation. Ultimately, it’s still meat that needs aggressive chemical treatment to make it safe to eat.

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