Will Brexit and Trump Really Force Us to Eat Chlorine-Washed Chicken?
There are fears that a post-Brexit trade deal between the UK and US would result in previously banned American food products—including chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-pumped beef—landing on British plates.
Photo via Flickr user Branden Wiegand
Judging by appearances alone, it's pretty difficult to tell the difference between a cheeseburger from the US and one from the UK. Same beef patty and oozy cheese, similarly obligatory lettuce leaf and bun.
But looks can be deceiving. The way in which that meat, cheese, salad, and bread is manufactured differs hugely between the two countries.
Under current EU law, many American farming practices—including the use of specific antibiotics and growth hormones, certain pesticides, and washing chicken in chlorinated water (yep, it's a thing in the US)—are banned on health and environmental grounds. It's also illegal to import food made via these methods to EU countries. While the US has in the past attempted to lift the ban, Europe has resisted.
But that could all be set to change—at least in Britain. There are worries that the UK Government may be about to open the door to hormone-pumped beef, pesticide-treated wheat, eggs from poor welfare hens, and swimming pool chicken.
Here's the lowdown. As Britain prepares to leave the European Union following last June's referendum result, a trade deal with the US is high on Theresa May's to-do list, underlined by her meeting with Donald Trump last month. As the PM and President shook (held) hands at The White House, the future of Britain's food safety standards were called into question.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today Programme, Bob Young, chief economist at the American Farm Bureau Federation, stated that any free trade deal between the two countries would have to involve the UK lifting its current ban on US food products. While the terms of a transatlantic trade deal are yet to be struck, it seems unlikely that Trump will miss an opportunity to "put America first"—pesticides, antibiotics, chlorine, and all.
The standard of food safety practices in the US, to which the British public could be exposed should current bans be lifted, has already been heavily criticised. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates the use of food additives, warned last year that dairy cows were too drugged up, while the World Health Organisation stated that the overuse of antibiotics in meat was causing antimicrobial resistance in humans. Pesticides, especially the ones used in GM crops by US seed giant Monsanto, are condemned by agricultural campaign groups for harming the environment and damaging native crop breeds. And then there are the so-called "ag-gag" laws in the US that make it near impossible to expose certain animal welfare violations.
Speaking to MUNCHIES, David Bowles, head of campaigns and public affairs at the RSPCA, stressed just how different US food safety laws are compared to the EU. He said: "The EU has something like 18 pieces of legislation on farm animals alone. Whereas the US has one piece of legislation at a federal level and most of the responsibility is left to individual states."
Things also look set to worsen under Trump's Presidency. Last September, MUNCHIES reported on a memo from Trump's Presidential campaign that appeared to set out plans to dissolve the FDA and remove food hygiene standards for farmers. Should a UK and US trade deal go through, this could have a huge impact on what makes its way to British supermarkets.
May and the Government's Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra) have been quick to assure the public that UK food safety won't slip.
A Government spokesperson told MUNCHIES: "Any new products wishing to enter the UK market must comply with our rigorous legislation and standards—we will not compromise on animal welfare and food safety." Addressing MPs on the issue at Prime Minister's Questions yesterday, May said: "We are committed to maintaining, where possible improving, standards of welfare in the UK, while ensuring of course that our industry is not put at a competitive disadvantage."
MUNCHIES reached out to the Food Standards Agency for comment, but they were unable to provide us with a response.
The EU has something like 18 pieces of legislation on farm animals alone. The US has one piece of legislation at a federal level.
Despite May's reassurances, many are worried that the British Government won't maintain a strong stance against dodgy American farming methods. This could negatively affect the food British farmers produce.
Speaking to MUNCHIES, Peter Stevenson, the chief policy advisor at welfare charity Compassion in World Farming, said: "Farm animal welfare standards in the US are generally lower than in the UK, so we could find ourselves being compelled under an agreement with the US to let meat and dairy products come in that have been produced to a low welfare standard. Industrially produced livestock has also, in part, fuelled intensive crop production, which depends on the use of pesticides and monocultures."
He continued: "That makes things very difficult for British farmers. If lower welfare, and cheaper to produce, products come in from the US, that will undermine our farmers."
Indeed, the National Farmers' Union (NFU) has already suggested that should a ban on US food imports be lifted, food safety standards would need to change for British farmers too. This would be the only way to ensure an even playing field between producers.
The NFU's director of policy Andrew Clark told MUNCHIES: "Other countries, like the USA, apply different standards to their farming systems which provide a cost advantage in the market place."
Clark continued: "Following Brexit, it's vital that British farmers can increase their efficiency and resilience and compete with farmers from across the world. A regulatory environment that embraces this will reap the rewards of a productive and progressive farming industry."
A trade deal that allows for the free-flow of food products between the UK and US comes with the risk of British farmers being undercut on price. But Bowles from the RSPCA thinks that this should prompt the US to raise its farming standards, rather than forcing UK farmers to cut corners on welfare to achieve lower costs.
Bowles said: "I agree with the NFU is that there should be a level playing field. Where I disagree with them is that they want to bring our standards down to the US standards. I want to bring the US standards up to the EU standards. There are many ways to ensure that we have a level playing field that do not mean that we lower or reduce our own standards."
But Stevenson from Compassion in World Farming remains skeptical: "When you have a trade agreement with another country, in theory everything can be discussed and negotiated so the UK could ask for a clause that allows us to decline to import meat, dairy, and eggs that have been produced to lower standards."
"Whether our Government is going to feel that this is important enough to them is highly questionable. The danger with any trade agreement is that we will accept imports with different standards to our own."
Here's hoping British diners aren't forced to order antibiotic-fuelled, low-welfare fried chicken with a side of pesticide fries anytime soon.