Why the fuss over chicken?
The international trade secretary Liam Fox has been in the US for the preliminary stages of thrashing out a trade deal to take effect after the UK leaves the EU. He was asked about the trade in food and agricultural products, which is likely to form a key plank of any deal. Fox on Monday refused to rule out allowing imports of chlorinated chicken, which is banned under EU regulations. Then Michael Gove, secretary of state for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs stepped in on Wednesday morning to say that the UK would not permit imports of chlorinated chicken under any new trade rules.
Why would you chlorinate a chicken anyway?
To clean it of bacteria and other contaminants. Proponents say it is healthy as it produces meat without faecal matter and without potentially dangerous germs, such as campylobacter and salmonella. But animal welfare campaigners say chlorination just disguises the real problem, which is rearing and slaughtering animals in dirty and unsanitary conditions. They point out that chlorination does not stop the contamination of meat, so unwanted germs continue to flourish and can become stronger, mutating into more virulent forms and ultimately posing a greater danger to human health.
What else might we import under new trade rules?
The EU imposes strict standards on issues such as animal welfare, and as a member state the UK is bound by 44 separate pieces of legislation governing everything from the live transport of farm animals to habitat protection for wildlife in the countryside. For instance, the former battery cages for hens have been phased out and replaced with minimum space requirements that allow animals some access to natural behaviours, such as scratching and nesting. Other countries still operate the old-style battery cages, and that meat could be imported. Pigs and cattle in the EU are also given more space to move around. In the US, in particular, the rise of megafarms has led to millions of animals being reared in conditions where they lack sunlight and access to the outdoors.
If we have assurances on chlorinated chicken and Michael Gove upholding standards, doesn’t that mean the problem is over?
Not quite. There are other less clear-cut issues with imports. Lacing animals’ food with hormones that promote faster growth is allowed in the US, as is the routine use of antibiotics in farming, which also promotes growth. Antibiotic use is now so rife in megafarms that even those used as medicines of last resort in humans are regularly given to farmed animals. The World Health Organisation is concerned that overuse of antibiotics in farming is a major contributor to antibiotic resistance worldwide.
Will consumers be able to choose whether their meat comes from happy animals?
You would hope so, but food labelling is notoriously tricky. For instance, labels currently allow some food to be described as British when it was grown elsewhere but processed here. In the US, there is also no obligation to report on various chemicals used in food.
What about vegetables – surely they’re OK?
Not necessarily. GM crops are restricted in the EU but grown in the US. Pesticides that are banned in Europe because of concerns over their safety are also in wide use in other countries.
What about farmers – they might like to chlorinate their chicken, and hormonise their cattle?
No, actually farmers are very worried. If the UK’s standards are lowered, it could mean the EU refuses to allow entry to UK farmed goods. As the EU is the biggest market for UK food and agricultural products, that could be disastrous.
Don’t UK farmers want US-style megafarms?
There is an increasing movement to large intensive farms in the UK, the biggest of which would be classed under US regulations as “concentrated animal feeding operations” (Cafos), popularly known as megafarms. A joint investigation by the Guardian and the Bureau of Investigative journalism recently found 789 of these, spread across every region of the UK. Farming leaders have also argued that such megafarms are the future of UK farming, as they enable lower costs and economies of scale, and thus cheaper food in the end. They say bigger does not mean worse, as in a large facility animals can be better looked after.
However, the row over megafarm expansion shows how Brexit is opening whole new areas of contention in businesses and communities all over the UK. Currently, UK megafarms are different from US facilities on the same scale, because they are governed by EU welfare standards.
Is it inevitable that Brexit means we are going to open our doors to floods of frankenfoods and miserable meat?
Michael Gove says not, but the chicken row has laid bare the divisions within the cabinet on the issue, and revealed how much such seemingly small details matter for the trade negotiations. The result will be a battle in cabinet over the terms of any deals, and the fine print will be key. Fox dismissed chicken as a “detail”, but what this row really reveals is the complexity of negotiating a whole new set of standards for regulations that have grown up over 40 years. Every detail of trade negotiations count, because every detail will affect business and consumers, positively or negatively.
So this is yet another terrible aspect of Brexit?
It does not have to be. Campaigners are keen to point out that the UK will have the opportunity outside the EU to strengthen our own standards of farming, raising the bar instead of lowering it.
Is that likely?
As the government will not be negotiating trade deals from the position of strength that comes from being part of a bloc with a half billion population of consumers, and hardball trading partners will be playing to wring the best deal possible for their industries, the potential raising of standards may be a detail too far for negotiators.