We probably don’t want to end up like Tony Curtis. I don’t mean famous and rich, but like someone who would say “I don’t know what organically grown chickens are; I’ve never seen one.” The prospect of our children growing up in a post-Brexit UK and saying “I don’t know what organically grown chickens are,” is more plausible, since yesterday, discussions of future trade deals between the US and the UK triggered concerns about US food quality regulations and lower animal welfare standards, including chlorine-washed chickens. 

“Never trust a Fox in your hen coop” 

The International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, who is in Washington, ridiculed British media for obsessing over chlorine-washed chickens and their sale in Britain after Brexit, saying that this was just a “detail” to consider in a later stage of any possible post-Brexit trade deal with the US. 

Dr Fox said: “The British media are obsessed with chlorine-washed chickens – a detail of the very end stage of one sector of a potential free trade agreement.” He mockingly said that “We work on the premise that the British press corps in Washington never eat American chicken or beef when they are here due to their health worries.” He urged reporters to focus on the benefits of a future deal and “how we make our contribution to global liberalisation and the increased prosperity of both the UK, the US and our trading partners,” than ridiculous worries about chlorinated chicken, which Americans have been eating safely for years. But his comments have infuriated organisations, Tory Brexiteers and Remainers. The pro-EU campaign group Open Britain dared Fox to try the delectable chlorine-washed chicken in front of the cameras during his US visit.

The British Poultry Council said it “rejects the notion of importing chlorine-washed chickens as part of a makeweight in trade negotiations with the US. The UK poultry meat industry stands committed to feeding the nation with nutritious food and any compromise on standards will not be tolerated. A secure post-Brexit deal must be about Britain’s future food security and safety. This is a matter of our reputation on the global stage.”

Labour’s shadow trade secretary, Barry Gardiner, said that Fox’s dismissive tone when discussing chlorine-washed poultry showed that you should “never trust a Fox in your hen coop.”

Liam Fox in Washington 

Dr Fox, who studied medicine at the University of Glasgow and worked as a GP and Civilian Army Medical Officer, held the first meeting of the UK-US trade and investment working group in Washington DC. This is the first formal meeting which will set the rules for a future UK-US trade deal, to be officially agreed after the UK exits the EU in 2019. Donald Trump had previously commented on a quick trade deal with the UK after Brexit and Fox reminded us that, “having the world’s largest economy publicly show commitment to increasing trade with us is not something we should sneer at.” In Washington, Fox is meeting with Trump’s trade representative Robert Lighthizer to “explore ways to strengthen our trade and commercial ties ahead of exit, consistent with our EU membership obligation.” He will have breakfast with members of Congress, meet commerce secretary Wilbur Ross and hold meetings in Houston with representatives from the chemical, oil and gas sectors. He will visit Mexico and meet the minister of the economy Ildefonso Guajardo.

“Do not count your chickens before they are hatched” (Aesop)

The controversial issues arising from Fox’s visit is that any possible trade agreement would have to conform to US regulations and lower food safety standards, including hormone-treated beef and chickens washed in chlorine, which are banned in the EU. 

According to stricter EU standards for safe, natural food, eighty-two pesticides are banned in the EU, but not in the US. Some of them are carcinogenic, others affect the immune system or have been linked to birth defects. A US-UK trade deal will enable the free circulation of American foods which are grown using these pesticides, but it would also encourage local British farmers to introduce such harmful chemicals in their own crops. Genetically Modified (GM) food, such as GM maize and soya are in US processed foods without being labelled as such, but in the EU products using GM ingredients are labelled and rarely preferred by consumers. In the UK, no GM crops are grown commercially, while Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have banned their cultivation.

There are more additives in American foods, with many of them completely banned in Europe. The possibility of a UK-US trade deal will also force UK companies to adopt US standards in order to be able to compete with US imports. 

The last couple of days, media are shocked with the possibility of importing chlorine chicken or acid-washed meat, not to mention beef injected with hormone and antibiotics (used to promote growth in farm animals), or meat coming from animals fed with animal by-products, such as brains and spinal cord—which can cause outbreaks of livestock diseases such as swine fever and mad cow disease. Any US-UK trade deal will open the doors to all of these practices and harmful food. Washing chickens in chlorine is also a dangerous practice which can be used by producers to make meat appear fresher than it actually is.

Michael Gove, the environment secretary, said last Friday that the UK should not race to strike a trade deal that might be compromising: “Of course it’s important we explore new trading opportunities, with the United States and other nations across the world, but it must not be, and the cabinet is agreed on this, at the risk of dropping any environmental standards whatsoever.”

But the Adam Smith Institute (ASI) recommended that the UK should be more open to adapting its standards because chlorine dioxide was safe to eat, plus food treated this way was cheaper. In their report, they said: “Agreeing to US poultry imports would help to secure a quick US trade deal, and bring down costs for British households. European opposition to US agricultural exports has held up trade talks for years. By scrapping the ban on chlorinated chicken imports, the government will send a signal to potential trading partners across the globe that the UK remains an open-facing and free trading nation.”

But, the UK should not count its chickens before they are hatched, and proceed carefully without compromising its food safety standards. This is what a report by a House of Lords committee warned today. 

House of Lords report

A cross-party House of Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee has urged that all Brussels animal welfare laws be transposed into UK law so that they are “effective on day one after Brexit.” While No10 didn’t rule out the possibility of importing US products such as chlorinated chicken, the report warned that UK producers would come under pressure if imports from other countries that didn’t meet EU standards were accepted. The committee said: “The government’s wish for the UK to become a global leader in free trade is not necessarily compatible with its desire to maintain high animal welfare standards.”

The chairman of the sub-committee, Lord Teverson, pointed out that Brexit would threaten the UK’s high standards of food: “We heard overwhelming support for farm animal welfare standards to be maintained or improved. We urge the government to secure the inclusion of high farm animal welfare standards in any free trade agreements it negotiates after Brexit.”

Downing Street hasn’t guaranteed that the quality of food will be maintained after EU withdrawal, and when the matter of a trade deal with the US and importing chlorine-washed chicken was brought up, Theresa May’s spokesman described it as a “hypothetical” scenario. While Gove and Andrea Leadsom argued against lowering food and farming standards, when May’s spokesman was asked about the UK accepting the controversial US standards, he said: “You are getting way ahead of yourself and I’m not going to get into discussing hypotheticals.” Bleaching and whitewashing important issues such as the population’s health and safety for a Brexit deal might not be what the Brexiteers imagined, but if we are going to trust a Fox, then it might be the quickest way for striking a trade deal with the US, no matter the costs.