US-UK FTA: It's not that the chicken was washed in chlorine! It's why it had to, in the first place.
Updated: Jun 29
Further thoughts on the UK-US FTA and what it means for an EU-UK Deal.
Updated 29 June 2020
In his contribution "If you think chlorinated chicken sounds disgusting…You don't know the half of it", former UK MEP candidate Gavin Esler in the London Economic, explained powerfully why UK consumers and businesses must be vigilant to the outcomes of the UK-US trade negotiations.
But probably [it is] essential to get a trade deal with the USA
The argument in a nutshell: Exposing animals and crops to certain chemicals is authorized and deemed legally safe in the US. It is a standard practice in U.S. farming. In the UK this is not current practice and would not be allowed on grounds of human and animal health concerns (as well as animal welfare). But does this matter when it comes to getting a deal with the U.S.? "Probably [it is] essential to get a trade deal with the USA", Gavin Esler concludes.
Red Line for a deal with the U.S.: Allow US Agri-Food imports into the UK
He has a point. Already in August 2019, the American Farm Bureau, an organisation representing U.S. farmers and ranchers, said that "the UK must accept US food standards as part of any future trade deal with Washington". The U.S. has long argued that "fears over practices such as washing chicken in chlorine and using genetically modified (GM) crops were not science-based". It’s standard practice in the US to rinse chicken carcasses with chlorine and other products to disinfect them after they’ve been slaughtered.
Red Line for a deal with the UK, too? Or just another Trade Commission?
Update 29 June 2020
Trade Secretary Liz Truss has announced the Government will set up a Trade and Agriculture Commission to explore ways to protect food production standards. She tweeted that "After positive discussions with
we are establishing a new Trade and Agriculture Commission to make recommendations for:
UK agricultural trade policy
higher animal welfare standards across the world
export opportunities for UK and farming
Here is the letter she sent:
The chlorinated chicken are the SYMBOL, not the actual problem
Anyone who looks closely and asks: "why does the EU forbid chlorinated chicken if they are eaten by millions in the US (any nobody drops dead!)" will find out that there are basically, three reasons why the poor chicken are actually not the problem:
EFSA doesn’t say chlorinated chicken is unsafe for humans
"There's no food safety issue with chlorine-washed goods because the EU themselves say that's perfectly safe," Liam Fox, 26 July 2017
He is right, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has deemed chlorine-washed chicken safe. In a 2005 study, the EFSA found that treating poultry carcasses with the four most commonly used antimicrobial substances “would be of no safety concern.”
“On the basis of available data and taking into account that processing of poultry carcasses (washing, cooking) would take place before consumption, the Panel considers that treatment with trisodium phosphate, acidified sodium chlorite, chlorine dioxide, or peroxyacid solutions, under the described conditions of use, would be of no safety concern.”
EFSA report, 2005
The US National Chicken Council explains at length how the process of producing chicken is undertaken of its website. Make up your own mind about the chicken.
The argument is not with the chicken.
What is it then?
2. For one, it is our institutionalised "Attitude to Risk".
These are big words. Risk is subjective. What is risky to you, may not be risky to me. We need to find a compromise as to what is an acceptable level of risk for both of us, or we will be in a state of constant argument. Governments, Policy and Laws also need to follow that principle. We need to agree on the right "attitude to risk" and then base our decisions on that.
What risk are we happy for our government to accept?
Let's sidetrack for just a moment
One of the greatest challenges facing today’s environmental policymakers is how to deal with complex risks, such as those associated with climate change. These risks are difficult to deal with because they are not precisely calculable in advance. Where there is scientific uncertainty about the full extent of possible harms but ‘doing nothing’ is also risky. How should decision-makers react?
Better safe than sorry?!
When it comes to allowing or not food from the US to the UK, evidence as regards the risk may be inconclusive and public controversy can make it difficult to achieve consensus over the appropriate response to potentially problematic substances or activities used, but these are precisely the sorts of conditions that often demand hard and fast decisions.
In other words, if the supporting evidence is incomplete or speculative and scientific evaluation does not allow the risk to be determined with sufficient certainty, then the government should still be able to act. Surely then though, it should aim to restrict rather than allow? Better safe than sorry?
So in the case of the US-UK FTA, if there is no conclusive and agreeable evidence that use of certain substances in animal or crops (don't think chicken, think ractopamine in US pork or GMO in crops) may be harmful to animal or human health in some shape or form, then would the same principle would apply, better safe than sorry?
3. Next, it's about not getting food poisoning
Excuse the simplification of the headline. But it has a point.
So, it's not about chicken, it is more about attitude to potential risk.
But fundamentally, it is also about the confidence in our food hygiene system and knowing what we eat and how it was produced. We care about that.
In the UK, the US and the EU there are rules for traceability of food, for the presentation of food and the provision of suitable food information and for the withdrawal or recall of unsafe food placed on the market. All countries have rules to ensure food and feed imported into, and exported from each country must comply with the national food law.
So far no problem.
Can I get sick from US food?
Anything you eat can make you sick. Which is why you want to make sure that the rules that allow us to produce and handle the food are as robust as possible. The US has its own strict rules for food safety, and they seem to work for the US stomach. But does it work for the UK or EU stomach?
Opinions differ. The Guardian on March 2nd 2020 had a damming verdict and cited many sources. The UK parliamentary report picked out some key differences between the EU and the US approaches, as including: “the US uses chemical washes, such as chlorine, in its production process… the US uses growth hormones in animal feed… GM foods are sold without labelling in the US… and… pesticides banned in the EU can be used in the US.”
EU-UK Agrifood trade after a UK-US deal
Regardless of what you chose to believe, there are chemicals and substances used in US food production that are banned in the EU today. This means, at least, two things:
These substances are also banned in the UK for now.
They continue to banned in the EU, even if the UK allows them when a UK-US trade deal is done.
After 2021, when the UK has lefts the EU Single Market, harmonised EU Single Market rules, including the food safety laws, rules stop. The UK is free to decide to change the approach to food safety if it wants to (unless it has locked itself into a deal with the EU).
EU controls: Protect me from the US food
The prospects of US farm produce landing on a French or Irish plate is real, if a UK-US deal is done and there are open borders between the UK and the EU. And so, the EU consumer may be concerned. The EU needs border control, especially for all food products heading from the UK to the EU. This is to prevent that prohibited food enters the EU Single Market from the UK.
Strangely enough, this means also UK to UK controls. Great Britain will, under the terms of the EU-UK Withdrawl Agreement, have to strictly control US food movements from the main Island to Northern Ireland. No lax controls can be accepted here.
The danger of illegal food exports to the EU could be considered as significant as there is an open border between Northern Ireland and The Republic of Ireland. There will inevitably have to be strict border checks and labelling between GB and NI, to protect the EU Single Market. That will be very palatable for neither the current UK government nor the NI Assembly.
So, are imports of U.S. agri-produce in the UK doomed before the deal is even done? Or is there a way?
A solution: The Dual tariff regime to address animal welfare concerns
As the Institute of Export and the Daily Telegraph report, seem to indicate that new ideas have emerged which would suggest a "dual tariff regime" as a solution to allowing imports of U.S. agricultural produce (like meat, crops etc) which may not meet the UK Food Standards today.
It appears that the UK government has proposed a ‘dual tariff’ that imposes varying levels of duty on imported foods, based on whether they comply with UK animal welfare protocols. Higher tariffs would be imposed on foods produced to lower welfare standards, such as hormone-fed beef and chlorinated chicken, in order to protect British farming.
Since when was this about welfare standards? They are important, too, don't get me wrong. But surely, this is about food safety?
Where is the solution for food safety concerns of the population? Simply repeating "Chlorinated Chicken is safe" is not enough. Why not? Because chicken is not the issue.
This also does not eliminate EU concerns about trying to prevent to get U.S. agri-food produce with non-permissible substance to the EU market.
Chlorinated chicken remains the symbol for the challenge of US agri-food trade with the UK, We have argued that while fine as a symbol, it is actually not the core of the challenge.
I said that, principally, the overall attitude to risk of the government should be decided upon first. Are we cautious or adventurous? Do we trust or verify or trust and verify? Better safe than sorry? Whatever we decide, this can then guide us with what food products (and other products) can come in and what cannot.
Next, I argued that the UK may wish to decide that food standard it can accept and what not. This is another principle point. Do we allow GMO food and other food production methods that we do not have in the UK?
If the UK changes the way it deals with food imports, should not everybody be heard before deciding on the strategy forward?
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