MPs have again voted against enshrining parliamentary scrutiny of future agricultural trade deals in law. An amendment to the new Agriculture Bill introduced by the House of Lords was voted down by 353 votes to 277 on Tuesday (19 January) night, according to the Guardian. The failure of the amendment would hypothetically allow government ministers to sanction trade deals that contravene U.K. food standards unopposed by Parliament.
The government has repeatedly claimed that it will not allow food imports that fall below those standards to enter the country, with international trade secretary Liz Truss and environment minister George Eustice most recently pledging that “chlorinated chicken and hormone-injected beef are already banned in the U.K., and we will not negotiate to remove that ban in a trade deal.”
That was in November 2020. The pledge, like the one before that in March of that year, is tempered by the reticence to make such a pledge law and thus invite farmers, meat plant workers, and British consumers to take a government that has made lying and misleading a core of its strategy at its word. The food standards issue is particularly important because protecting them was a tenet of its 2019 election manifesto, in which it promised to “not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.”
What’s actually happened is a lot of backsliding on promises and MPs voting down their own powers of scrutiny in support of the Tory whip. This vote is the latest in a long series of back-and-forths, as the Agriculture Bill “ping-pongs” between the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The one Lords amendment that makes a difference to food policy that stuck was the establishment of a Trade and Agriculture Commission, which will scrutinise deals but only has advisory powers.
The media lightning rod for this debate has been chlorinated chicken, and like many media lightning rods it doesn’t really explain what the problem with this is. The key disparity between U.K. and U.S. food standards is that 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 more so than for end-consumers is just one piece of the puzzle. The other is that American meat producers don’t wash chicken and other products in chlorine, or acid wash, or a litany of other chemicals for kicks; they do it because their working and animal welfare conditions require it to make the meat. safe to eat.
These are animal and worker welfare issues long before they’re food safety issues, and the chemical’s association with disinfectant and swimming pools in the U.K. 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.
The other distractive lightning rod is the number of U.K. supermarkets that have pledged not to stock treated chicken or hormone-injected beef if it does enter U.K. supply chains as a sui generis product. 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. It’s also unlikely that any deal will be reached in the first year of Joe Biden’s presidency, which begins today.
How’s that for taking back control.