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”, according to a new report published by the House of Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee.
The committee said there was evidence that the “greatest threat” to farm animal welfare standards post-Brexit would come from UK farmers competing against cheap, imported food from countries that produce to lower standards than the UK.
It also warned that consumers are “not always aware of the difference between production systems or willing to pay a higher price for premium welfare products”.
The report comes in a week in which senior cabinet members have been contradicting themselves on animal welfare standards and food safety post-Brexit.
On Monday, the UK trade secretary Liam Fox claimed the media has become “obsessed” with chlorine-washed chicken being sold in the UK as part of a trade deal with the US. Fox, who is in Washington for talks, said the issue is “a detail of the very end-stage of one sector of a potential free trade agreement”.
His comments created angry reactions both at home and in Brussels. Speaking on BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday, DEFRA secretary Michael Gove, insisted that “we are not going to dilute our high environmental standards or our animal welfare standards in the pursuit of a trade deal. We need to ensure that we do not compromise those standards. And we need to be in a position as we leave the European Union to be leaders in environmental and in animal welfare standards."
US farmers can use a chemical soak to help control levels of salmonella and other bacteria, including campylobacter. The practice is currently banned in the EU, with concerns that it would lead to carelessness in abattoirs.
Chlorine-washed chickens therefore became synonymous with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. In January, the former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg revealed comments made to him by the former US vice-president, Joe Biden: “He said to me very unsentimentally […] ‘We are not going to sign anything that the chicken farmers of Delaware don’t like!’.”
Now that the UK and US governments are seemingly keen to do a trade deal post-Brexit the issues of animal welfare and food safety have re-surfaced.
The British Poultry Council rejected outright the notion of importing chlorine-washed chickens. “This will be a betrayal to our farmers and will throw away British farming,” read a statement on the organisation’s website.
Consumers are likely to turn their noses up at the thought, too – at least according to previous research. A study by scientists at the Universities of Aberdeen and St Andrews in 2014 assessed consumer acceptability of various interventions designed to reduce campylobacter in the poultry chain. More than one in two people surveyed said chlorine washes would never be ok.
Last week, a team of leading food policy specialists warned that the UK is facing a future of “less safe and nutritious foods” after Brexit. The paper, published on July 17 by the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex, noted that “Food Brexit means leaving the many EU institutions that help to protect food safety and public health”.
The experts warned: “There are good grounds not simply for maintaining food standards in and after Food Brexit but for raising them. Who is championing this inside Whitehall? So far, no-one is doing so.”