Political Print: Chicken dispute misses the point

Despite calls for politicians to ban chlorine-washed US poultry, it’s businesses that will really decide whether it ends up on our plates. By Nick Hughes.

It took what the Print likes to call “the yuk factor” for food to finally feature in the public discourse about Brexit.

The prospect of US chlorine-washed chicken being served up to British consumers divided people, and politicians, along two lines: those, represented by the international trade secretary, Liam Fox, who saw no harm in an apparently safe process if it meant cheaper food; and those who saw it as an assault on high standards of UK production, who found an unlikely champion in the environment secretary, Michael Gove.

Both of these arguments have holes in them: campaigners will argue that industrially produced meat is only cheap because many of the environmental costs are externalised, while the majority of UK poultry meat production is sufficiently industrial in nature to justify the existence of high welfare schemes such as RSPCA Assured.

But regardless of whether you’re on Team Fox or Team Gove (and the question of whether you have faith in Gove’s reincarnation as an eco-warrior is another matter), the debate about the desirability of US meat missed an important point about how our food system works.

Sure, politicians can pull policy levers to create a framework for what foods are available to British consumers, but it’s businesses that will ultimately determine whether these foods end up on our plates.

In the case of chlorine-washed chicken or hormone-fed beef it seems inconceivable that the Stars and Stripes will appear on any fresh supermarket meat in the event that such products are included in a future UK-US free trade deal.

If you doubt this assertion, just look at the GM food precedent, where no retailer has been prepared to risk the wrath of the tabloid press and environmental groups ever since the last can of genetically modified tomato paste was pulled from UK supermarket shelves in the late 1990s.

In the case of US fresh meat you can add the National Farmers Union to the list of groups which would create bedlam if Tesco, Asda or any other major supermarket chain were to favour US meat over home-grown produce. One need only witness the fervid reaction when a retailer dares to put New Zealand lamb on the shelves during the summer months to understand how emotive a subject this is – and New Zealand lamb has none of the grim connotations of US meat.

Where fresh meat is concerned, provenance matters even at the value end of the market.

It’s more plausible that US meat could appeal in parts of the market where provenance is not such a selling point – in processed foods and, significantly, in foodservice. And it’s here that another claim of free-trade proponents needs to be challenged.

The oft-repeated line that “the consumer will decide” whether to accept US meat ignores the fact that there is currently no requirement to label the origin when meat is used an ingredient in processed foods, nor when it is served in an out-of-home setting. Put simply, the consumer will never know they are eating US meat unless a benevolent vendor chooses to tell them.

This would put a huge onus on foodservice businesses, in particular, to act as the arbiters of demand for US meat. A ready supply of cheap meat would prove hugely tempting to many, yet there is enough evidence to suggest that even in foodservice US meat producers would struggle to find willing buyers with the scale to support a substantial export trade.

Among the large high-street brands and contract caterers, ethical considerations are playing an increasingly important role in sourcing decisions. The likes of McDonald’s and Subway have already committed to sourcing antibiotic-free meat while Compass and Sodexo are among a number of businesses to pledge 100% cage-free eggs. It’s hard to imagine these businesses serving up chlorine-washed chicken or hormone-fed beef given the direction of travel on responsible sourcing.

Of course, there is an element of the trade that will always pay the lowest price for ingredients, regardless of origin or production method, but it’s a niche that is shrinking all the time.

The government can strike as many trade deals as it likes, but businesses will still be the real gatekeepers of the nation’s diet.

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