US-UK post-Brexit trade deal worries: Chlorine-treated chicken debate ruffles feathers

US-UK post-Brexit trade deal worries: Chlorine-treated chicken debate ruffles feathers

05 Mar 2019 --- The row over whether chlorine-washed chicken from the US should be allowed to enter the UK post-Brexit has been reignited after the US ambassador to Britain, Woody Johnson, wrote about the negotiation of a future trade deal in a leading UK newspaper. Johnson has come under fire from critics who want to shut down any possibility that US exports of chlorine-treated chicken will end up in the UK. Johnson’s comments are part of a drive to open up possibilities for US farmers once Britain leaves the EU, and is, therefore, not bound by the same strict food safety rules. But the issue of chlorine treated chicken, in particular, is causing a stir as opponents say that British farming standards must not be sacrificed in any future US trade deal.

The technique of washing chicken with chlorine is used in the US as a way to kill bacteria such as salmonella and listeria. However, it’s part of a bigger issue concerning animal welfare. The US has some voluntary codes but compared with the EU, the US poultry industry is unregulated which allows for flocks to be kept in greater densities. 

This can lead to a greater incidence of infection and so chlorine treatment is sometimes touted as a solution. In the EU, chicken farmers tend to manage potential contamination issues by adopting higher welfare standards. There are also increasing consumer trends demanding a high level of animal welfare. 

However, with the UK on the verge of exiting the EU and with it, it’s strict food safety regulation, there are many opportunities and challenges which need to be addressed in terms of agricultural practices, market access and trade with third-party countries. 

This includes US poultry farmers who want access to the UK market post-Brexit. 

The National Union of Farmers (NUF) says it isn’t surprised that the US is pushing for a trade deal which accepts US production standards and practices.

“It is imperative that any future trade deals, including a possible deal with the US, do not allow the imports of food produced to lower standards than those required of British farmers,” says NFU President Minette Batters.

“British people value and demand the high standards of animal welfare, environmental protection and food safety that our own farmers adhere to. These world-leading standards must not be sacrificed in the pursuit of reaching rushed trade deals. We should not accept trade deals which allow food to be imported into this country produced in ways which would be illegal here.”

Concerns are mounting after Johnson’s comments in The Telegraph where he said post-Brexit warnings about how chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-pumped beef arriving on supermarket shelves have presented the British public “with a false choice: either stick to EU directives, or find yourselves flooded with American food of the lowest quality. Inflammatory and misleading terms like ‘chlorinated chicken’ and ‘hormone beef’ are deployed to cast American farming in the worst possible light,” he wrote. 

The article goes on to say, “it is time the myths are called,” and Johnson claims that they are a “smear campaign from people with their own protectionist agenda.” He also notes that using chlorine to wash chicken was the same as that used by EU farmers to treat their fresh produce and it was the most effective and economical way of dealing with “potentially lethal” bacteria.

The comments were made after the US published its objectives to a potential trade deal with the UK. The US government has called for comprehensive market access for produce to reach Britain. This includes removing certain sanitary and phytosanitary standards on imported goods.

The British Poultry Council (BPC) has also weighed in on the debate claiming that UK standards must be defended and steadily improved. 

“A lot of talk has taken place about chlorine-chicken and its place in a proposed US-UK trade deal. Most of what has been said is utterly correct, that it represents a diminution of our standards and the ceding of our food sovereignty and security to a foreign power. There is outrage, and rightly so, but the passion behind that outrage now needs to be channeled to our benefit,” the BPC says. 

In April 2018, the University of Southampton released findings that claimed chlorine, commonly used in the agriculture industry to decontaminate fresh produce, can make foodborne pathogens undetectable. As a consequence of the research one of the collaborators, Vitacress Salads, became the first UK company to obtain supermarket approval to sell fresh produce washed in spring water without chlorine.

Lead author Professor Bill Keevil, Head of the Microbiology Group at the University of Southampton, said at the time: “It will likely impact on post-Brexit trade agreements with countries insisting the UK import their chlorine-treated foodstuffs which this new work shows may not actually be safe because the sanitization does not kill any bacterial pathogens present that are still capable of causing disease. One example is chlorine treated chicken carcasses.”

Widespread opposition
There has been widespread opposition in the UK to chlorine-dipped chicken. An Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) poll from April 2018 also found that only 8 percent of respondents thought the UK should lower food safety standards, with 82 percent preferring to keep standards as they are.

At the time, UK Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox confirmed in Parliament that a consultation on trade had resulted in 600,000 responses from the public, with food standards the most common concern. 

UK Environment Minister Michael Gove also recently stated: “We will not enter into trade or other agreements that undercut or undermine the high standards on which British agriculture’s reputation depend.”

And earlier this year, Dr. Elinor McCartney, President of Pen & Tec Consulting Group, spoke to FoodIngredientsFirst in an extensive interview on the current EU regulatory environment, including how Brexit could present the UK with a unique opportunity to modernize its food regulations. However, she also warned that the UK should tread carefully in order to remain compliant with EU standards, or risk alienating its own GMO skeptical domestic consumer market.

In practical terms, the UK’s exit from the EU has major implications for UK-produced food, whether destined for the UK or EU market. The drama continues to play out on the political stage, while the real practicalities for industry are being considered. With a no-deal still on the table, few areas are clear at this stage and there are several issues that require urgent consideration and clarity. You can read more in the forthcoming March issue of The World of Food Ingredients. 

By Gaynor Selby

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