Chlorinated chicken is hardly the most appetising sounding of dishes, but it is now firmly on the political menu. Prompted by the Trade Secretary’s scoping visit to the US, the prospect of British consumers being faced with such suspicious-sounding poultry products at the butchers and in the supermarkets is making many nervous. Chlorinated chicken may be good enough for the Americans, it is implied, but why should the British have to accept such barbarities as the price of a free trade deal with Donald Trump’s America? Is this what Brexit means? Is this what Liam Fox is going to bring us back for supper?
Certainly the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, who is also the minister in charge of food, doesn’t seem to think it is a price worth paying. Last week he issued some particularly pointed warnings about food standards, and why the British consumer and farmer is not about to be asked to abandon animal welfare, food safety or, indeed, taste and nutritional value for the sake of economics.
The truth about chlorinated chicken is that it is safe, but not perhaps necessarily always as safe as the European, unchlorinated bird. Whereas the Americans use chlorine to clean out the carcass at the end of their production process, the Europeans prefer to ensure that any bacteria doesn’t turn up in the first place, by specifying higher standards of husbandry: prevention is usually better than cure, after all. Much the same goes for other livestock. Arguably one is superior or, more accurately, more cost-efficient than the other; but neither are, according to regulators on both sides of the Atlantic, a threat to human health.
What the poor old chlorinated chicken is coming to symbolise – many years before any trade agreement with the US is anywhere near signing – is both the opportunities and the dangers of Brexit. The opportunity is for the British Parliament to “take back control” of what appears at Sunday lunchtimes on British dinner tables or, more typically, in a KFC bucket. MPs will be able to debate this topic freely, their decision on the matter sovereign. No EU commissioner will dictate to us about poultry.
The opportunity is also there for the UK to take advantage of lower world food prices. These industrially manufactured American birds will be cheaper than their European and British counterparts, leading to an immediate reduction in the cost of food and of living, especially for families towards the lower end of the income scale. We can, after Brexit, choose to import chlorinated chicken if we wish to; we can label it as we wish, and warn consumers about it as we wish. We will reign “chicken supreme”, crowing on top of the dung heap in our own island farmyard.
Except, of course, that the matter is not as simple as that – as sovereignty tends not to be. If the Americans insist on the British letting chlorinated chicken enter the domestic market without unfair levies or restrictions, as the price of a wider trade deal, what then is Britain to do? The UK’s trade negotiators can still say no, but not as convincingly or with as much muscle behind them as the European Union can say no. While not literally force-fed American chlorinated chicken, so desperate will the UK be for a deal that it will drop its fussy eating habits for the sake of jobs and exports to the US. As with Saudi arms sales, it would not be the first time that principles were mortgaged for economic gain. The danger of Brexit is that the UK loses negotiating strength and the ability to protect consumers and farmers.
As Mr Gove boasts, Britain has – including by EU benchmarks – high standards of animal welfare generally. We are suspicious of, shall we say, “experts” meddling in the natural production of food, and are yet to be convinced of the merits of genetically modified crops. Our own experiences, from salmonella in eggs to the BSE beef crisis and the horsemeat scandal, have taught us to take food safety and honesty extremely seriously. There is no point to any free trade deal if it is just going to make us throw up, literally or metaphorically.
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