Food standards could be weakened after Brexit leaving consumers with chlorine-washed chicken, warn environmentalists

Scottish whisky producers may also be left at a disadvantage as the US is pushing for fewer rules on alcohol production

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British supermarkets could be flooded with chlorine-washed chicken, hormone-treated beef and pork laced with a controversial drug that is banned in more than 150 countries, as part of a post-Brexit trade deal with the United States, a leading environmental group has warned. 

Wide-scale deregulation of the UK food market is being touted by experts as a likely consequence of Britain leaving the EU, as Theresa May’s Government seeks to forge new trade links with countries that have lax rules on the use of chemicals in food production. 

American food safety standards for a range of meat, poultry and dairy products are much lower than those imposed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which has until now restricted US imports to Europe. 

But in an effort to secure a trade arrangement with the US after Brexit, Britain may be forced to accept lower quality products – from the use of banned flavourings to cloned meat and increased pesticides - in exchange for a quick deal.

The use of ractopamine in pork is one area where regulations may be loosened to accommodate US farmers’ demands after Brexit.

American trade negotiators are likely to request restrictions on the use of the drug, which is banned in the EU, be weakened to facilitate post-Brexit trade with the UK.

Ractopamine is given to pigs and other livestock to “promote leanness” and is used to fatten animals reared for meat. 

It features on a US “wish list” of food production methods that Washington hopes will be deregulated.  

However, serious questions have been raised about the drug after it was found to cause adverse effects in some pigs, including weak limbs and trembling. 

An influx of hormone-treated beef is another likely result of UK-US negotiations after Brexit, trade experts fear.

The EU prohibits use of growth-promoting hormones in cattle based on a calculated health risk, but US trade representatives, acting on behalf of America’s farming lobby, call the ban “unscientific” and say they will work to scrap the rules.

Hormones lead cattle to grow larger and faster, and to produce less fatty meat.

But environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth (FotE) warns that the use of hormones supports a system of beef production which has “devastating environmental impacts”.

Sam Lowe, lead campaigner on Brexit and trade at FotE, said: “Regardless of what happens in the coming years, the UK will be faced with a decision: whether to continue to prioritise collaboration and cooperation with our closet neighbours, or pivot towards Trump and the US in the hope that increased trade with the other side of the Atlantic will compensate for Brexit losses.”

The British Government maintains that there will be no radical shift in environmental policy and that the majority of existing EU laws will be transferred to UK law after two-years of negotiations with Brussels. 

Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom insisted yesterday that imported food from the US after Brexit would have to meet UK standards.

Answering questions following a speech to the National Farmers Union (NFU) conference in Birmingham, Ms Leadsom said: "In terms of the free trade agreement and particularly the reference to the Atlantic and the Red Tractor - I'm a huge fan of the Red Tractor, and there's absolutely nothing that's going to knock that into a ditch as far as I'm concerned.

"And of course food standards are key, I already mentioned in my speech we have a manifesto commitment on animal welfare standards in international free trade agreements.

"We will remain committed to ensuring a level playing field to our high standards."

But environmental campaigners fear a long list of food production methods and treatments that are currently banned could be opened up, including chemically-washed chicken carcasses and milk products with a higher somatic cell count, which indicates possible infection. 

Safety experts warn that the procedure of washing poultry using chlorine dioxide, acidified sodium chlorite, trisodium phosphate or peroxyacids, adopted by many American farmers, means chicken infected with salmonella can enter the food chain.  

It has been called an “easy fix for dirty meat” as it reduces incentives for farmers to treat infections early on. 

Rules on milk production in the US allow for a somatic cell count almost double that permitted in the EU.

Somatic cells – the number of white blood cells in milk - are used as a measure of milk quality and as an indicator of udder health.

While it is universally accepted that a higher somatic cell count means lower quality milk, US regulators insist it has no bearing on the safety of milk itself.

Mr Lowe said: “We must be honest about the trade-offs: any comprehensive trade deal with the US will require the UK to make concessions, especially in the area of agriculture and food safety standards. 

“This will this impact UK farmers, who will struggle to compete with industrialised US agriculture. 

“It will also lead to downward pressure on UK standards, as domestic producers are undercut by products born of a US regulatory regime that permits, for example, the use of growth hormones in beef production and the washing of chicken carcasses in chlorine.”

He also warned that the UK's negotiating position would be weakened after Brexit, forcing the Government to accept major concessions on food standards.

“It is in America’s interests to try and get as much as they can from the UK in terms of what they want for their producers,” he said.

“When you talk about trade negotiations, sequencing is quite important. You don't go to the biggest country first, so with the EU it went to South Korea first to try and get as many concessions before going to Japan.

“From the US perspective, if they are thinking strategically, they will try and get as many concessions from the UK as possible to then use as a baseline for future approaches to the European Union.”

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MAP packaging keeps meat looking ruby-red, as if it were newly cut (Rex) (Rex Features)

Scottish whisky producers may also be left at a disadvantage as the US is pushing for fewer rules on alcohol production. 

Current EU law stipulates that for a product to be labelled ‘whisky’ it must be aged a minimum of three years, and US versions aged for a shorter period cannot be marketed using the name. 

However, American trade officials argue that the three-year cap is “unwarranted” and are likely to seek a change to the rules in a post-Brexit deal with the UK.

The US Government states that it “remains concerned about a number of measures the EU maintains ostensibly for the purposes of food safety and protecting human, animal, or plant life or health. 

“Specifically, the United States is concerned that these measures unnecessarily restrict trade without furthering their safety objectives.”

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