UK government insists high standard in food quality will remain as concerns grow over US farming deal

A post-Brexit trade deal with the US could see chlorine-washed chicken on UK supermarket shelves (PA)
A post-Brexit trade deal with the US could see chlorine-washed chicken on UK supermarket shelves (PA)
Ciaran Moran

Ciaran Moran

The UK government has insisted that a high standard in food quality will remain as researchers issue a warning over US farming practices.

Last week, the US ambassador to London said Britain should not follow the European Union’s “Museum of Agriculture” and let false concerns over US farming practices get in the way of a post-Brexit trade deal.

The US laid out its objectives for a post-Brexit trade deal with Britain, seeking to entirely eliminate or reduce barriers for US agricultural products and streamline regulatory differences.

Critics have argued that such a US accord would open up Britain’s markets to the likes of chlorine-treated chicken and genetically modified crops, while ministers have said the government would not lower food standards to win trade deals.

Writing in the Lancet Prof Erik Millstone of the University of Sussex and Tim Lang, Professor of food policy at the University of London said that while few analysts think EU standards are perfect, comparing EU, US, and other food standards, they concluded that EU regulatory standards are among the highest in the world and rightly prioritise prevention over remediation.

They said that several essential US foods standards are weaker than the EU's.

"After years of crises over food safety, especially BSE, the EU decided to prevent rather than remediate food-borne diseases."

On beef, the US Trade Representative claims science shows US beef industry products are safe.

However, Millstone and Lang says this view fails to appreciate that when European expert advisors reach different conclusions, it is not because they fail to accept the evidence; rather, they ask and answer different questions and consequently look at different bodies of evidence.

"The US assessment of the risks of eating beef from cattle treated with supplementary growth hormones only assesses risks to average healthy adults.

"In the EU, the questions are extended to cover wider ranges of consumers. The EU Scientific Committee on Veterinary Measures relating to Public Health concluded that, although beef from hormone-treated cattle might be safe for average healthy adults, it is not acceptably safe for pre-pubescent adolescents, immunologically compromised people, and older people," they said.

On chicken the pair highlight that the EU resisted US-style use of chlorinated water to clean chickens.

US producers can lawfully use six chemical disinfectants, not just on poultry but on other meats as well as fish, fruits, and vegetables.

"The dubious benefit of this approach has emerged from research at Southampton University, UK, in 2018, the results of which show that chlorine washing does not kill or weaken contaminating bacteria on food; it makes them harder to detect."

Meanwhile, the UK government has said it will retain high EU food standards.

Both its former Food Minister George Eustice (now resigned) and the Secretary of State Michael Gove at Defra (still in position) insist high standards will remain, but their draft Agriculture Bill, heavily focused on environmental land management, omits that commitment.

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