/ Food & Drink

Would a UK-US trade deal protect food standards?

Woody Johnson has dismissed farming and food production in Europe as a ‘museum of agriculture’ – but is that really the case?

Donald Trump’s man in London is inviting British consumers to replace what he presents as a fixation on ‘history and tradition’ with the farming methods of the future, based on an American preference for ‘science and innovation’.

But the evidence suggests that when it comes to animal welfare laws and food standards it is the US that is stuck in the past and Britain that has a model both countries could adopt and build on as part of a lucrative post-Brexit trading relationship in the future.

If Mr Johnson is to persuade UK families of the benefits of chlorine-washed chicken, hormone-boosted beef and genetically-modified salmon, he will first have to explain why so many Americans are getting sick because of the food they eat.

Foodborne diseases

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that around one in six Americans – that’s 48 million people – suffer from foodborne diseases every year.

The equivalent figure in Britain is around one in 60 (one million cases a year according to the Food Standards Agency’s estimate). In the US, 128,000 people are hospitalised and 3,000 die each year from foodborne diseases.

Mr Johnson defended the infamous process of washing chicken in chlorine – claiming it is a “public safety no-brainer” when it comes to killing potentially lethal bacteria such as Salmonella and Campylobacter.

But in the US, rather than being an effective public safety measure, this is often used as a desperate attempt to make up for rampant food safety problems and can be ineffective – as a recent outbreak of salmonella infantis linked to 129 illnesses and one death demonstrated.

Lessons learned from food safety scares like the BSE crisis and horsemeat scandal mean we have a much more rigorous system in this country, with controls throughout the food supply chain designed to minimise contamination throughout the process, rather than relying on chemical treatments at the end.

Post-Brexit trade between the UK and USA

The US government’s published aims for a post-Brexit trade deal followed intense lobbying from the US agriculture industry, which appears determined that British markets should be opened up to their produce.

When we analysed these submissions, the findings were alarming. US pork producers, for example, said it was ‘critically important’ that their meats should be able to enter the UK duty-free and with none of the human and animal health protection checks currently required by EU and UK law.

The expectation that British regulations should be brought into line with those in the US could not be clearer.

But it must be for people in Britain to determine the safety and standards regime for the food they eat – these vital protections cannot be a bargaining chip, which might be given away to facilitate transatlantic trade in other goods or services.

Tough negotiations

The US trade position should, of course, be taken with a pinch of salt – it is just the opening gambit in what will doubtless be tough negotiations.

But British farmers, food experts and the Environment Secretary have been clear – we should not allow any dilution of food or safety standards, whether for domestic production or imports.

Encouragingly, Downing Street has also repeatedly denied that food standards could be lowered as part of a future trade deal.

UK consumers are remarkably united in agreement on this point – no matter where they are in the country and whether they buy their food from Waitrose or Aldi.

Nine in 10 (90%) people told us it is important that food standards are maintained after Brexit – and when asked specifically about US production methods, they are equally clear.

Eight in 10 (79%) people said they would be uncomfortable drinking milk produced using growth hormones and the same number said they would be uncomfortable eating hormone-treated beef.

Nearly seven in 10 (68%) said they would be uncomfortable eating chlorine-washed chicken and 72 per cent expressed the same concern about meat from cloned animals.

Cheaper food prices – lower standards?

The argument advanced in some quarters that millions of British shoppers would welcome the cheaper food prices a US-UK trade deal could bring did not stand up to scrutiny when we asked consumers for their views.

Seven in 10 people (71%) told us they would not buy food produced to lower standards, even if it was cheaper – and this response was consistent across socio-economic groups.

If British food standards are to change after Brexit, they should only change for the better.

Brexit can be used as an opportunity – to scrap the wasteful Common Agricultural Policy, invest in technology and design a joined-up food and farming policy that ensures food is produced to the highest standards and meets the nation’s health needs.

By all means, we should have an ambitious US-UK trade deal as part of Britain’s outward-looking post-Brexit future – there is no doubt that the potential to provide consumers with greater choice and more competitive prices is huge.

But let’s agree from the outset that our shared goal should be a “race to the top” in standards for British and American consumers – particularly when it comes to the food on our table.

If the mooted transatlantic trade deal cannot achieve that, its fate may be to end up as little more than a footnote in the museum of Brexit.

Comments
DerekP says:
20 March 2019

I doubt that any UK consumers want to see reduced standards of food hygiene and/or animal welfare.

In her introduction, Caroline wrote: “If Mr Johnson is to persuade UK families of the benefits of chlorine-washed chicken, hormone-boosted beef and genetically-modified salmon, he will first have to explain why so many Americans are getting sick because of the food they eat.”

Once we are no longer part of the EU there is little doubt that there will be pressure to allow chlorine-washed chicken. Here is a non-technical article explaining some of the problems: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/may/26/chicken-health-fear-chlorine-washing-fails-bacteria-tests-brexit-salmonella-listeria

This may just be a news article but it is based on a peer reviewed paper from Bill Keevil’s group at the University of Southampton. https://mbio.asm.org/content/mbio/9/2/e00540-18.full.pdf

Thanks for both those links. It is nice to see open access to scientific research.

I’m a great supporter of open access, Abby. More and more OA articles are published every year and as well as making access freely available the authors benefit from more people reading their work.

It would be useful to be more specific about food health risks. Simply to say “If Mr Johnson is to persuade UK families of the benefits of chlorine-washed chicken, hormone-boosted beef and genetically-modified salmon, he will first have to explain why so many Americans are getting sick because of the food they eat.” then a link to show that their “sickness” is directly linked to these three issues is required.

Would we be content if imported food labelling was explicit about the conditions that are part of its production? We would need educating of course to make an informed choice. Is, for example, chlorine washing of chicken harmful to people or is it better to reduce the naturally-occurring bacterium campylobacter, that we will likely never eliminate, by “natural” methods? Or should we tolerate the small chance of infection if we don’t cook it properly?

We are not squeaky clean in the UK. We have had BSE through dodgy animal feed, overcrowding in livestock and poultry production, use of antibiotics to compensate for poor husbandry (perhaps).

On the other hand the US uses, on average, 4.9 times the amount of antibiotics that we use saveourantibiotics.org/media/1791/comparison-of-us-and-uk-farm-antibiotic-use.pdf

I’d like to see a proper comparison of food standards that might be affected and the effect they are shown to have on consumers.

All the bacteria that cause food poisoning are naturally occurring, and campylobacter is the most common cause. Those of us who choose to avoid chicken can still suffer because of of cross contamination of cooked food or food that is eaten raw, e.g. salads.

Following the publicity of the campylobacter levels in supermarket chicken, helped by Which?, some improvement was achieved and recently the Co-Op and Morrisons have achieved zero levels of ‘high level’ contamination, though the most recent information from the Food Standards Agency is not so good and all the major retailers (and probably others) and their suppliers could I believe do more to tackle the problem. https://www.food.gov.uk/news-alerts/news/major-retailers-publish-campylobacter-results

It is very heartening to see how this bacterium has been tackled by the various “interventions” developed by the major retailers and others. The key with poultry is still to store and cook it correctly.

50% of our processed chicken comes from Thailand and Brazil – 170 000 t (2015-6). I wonder how well regulated is the production and the imported product.

I would prefer to promote home grown food and minimise processing – I can do most of that in the kitchen. I accept that there will be malpractice here – there are “rogues” in every walk of life – but I hope that gradually we will restore resources to our regulators and have better control of the UK food industry than we can hope to achieve with overseas producers.

The focus of the problem has been fresh chicken and there is still a major problem to be tackled. It does not help that major companies have been put in charge of looking after food safety under the Regulating our Future initiative. There is no indication that this will change when we are not members of the EU.

Imported frozen chicken may be less of a problem because freezing is more effective in reducing campylobacter than with many (Gram-negative) bacteria, but we certainly do need to pay attention to food safety, irrespective of source.

Kevin says:
20 March 2019

Scientific advice from a member of the Trump administration?

Thanks for letting us know that european food regulations are all based on based on fake science, Woody, once we’ve silenced project food fear, we’ll sharpen our pitchforks for those pesky climate scientists.

I am concerned that the UK has become so dependent on other countries for its food and energy supplies. As mentioned in Caroline’s introduction, there is a strong public interest in food safety. With UK-produced food, we have more chance of checking what is happening in the supply chain.

Perhaps we could use Brexit as an opportunity to focus on buying and creating a demand for home produced food. Assuming that labelling is honest, it’s not too difficult to find food that is produced in the UK and with fruit & veg, to identify local produce.

At the moment we do not know what a UK-US trade deal may bring.

If we collectively ate less food we could get closer to self-sufficiency.

Excellent point.

…..and if we developed a culture of seeing excessive food waste as unacceptable at home, restaurants, supermarkets.

We could ban multi-buy offers on fresh food, which is a common cause of food waste. If the supermarket wants to offer a BOGOF they could simply halve the price. It does not matter for products with a long shelf life.

I don’t see “free” items where I shop. However if people didn’t buy offers no doubt they would disappear. I’m not keen on imposing our personal preferences on other people in this regard; many may make very good use of offers.

The conundrum for shops is keeping sufficient stock to satisfy demand without having too much go out of date and be ditched. Maybe we should look harder at “use buy” dates. I have potatoes in the fridge that last for weeks; presumably the shop throws them away if they have gone past their date on the shelf.

We need to buy what we need and if that involves taking advantage of offers to eke out our budget then that’s fine with me. teaching people to use any food wisely seems the key. Is the higher cost of food going to eventually influence that?

Anyway, I’m off to plant some broad beans while the weather is kind.

We may well have well-founded concerns about the standard of imported food, from the US for example. However, providing the food is labelled with the appropriate information (this chicken has been chlorine washed, this beef has been produced using hormone growth promoters, for example) we as individuals do not have to buy it. However, just as relevant, the major retailers do not have to buy it either if it is not to the standard we, as a country, want, whatever a trade deal might say. No one can force unacceptable food down our throats except by deception.. If the House of Commons restaurants wish to serve it up to MPs, all well and good.

At present this is wishful thinking. Through ignorance, we might assume that all is well in the UK, but have a look at this page from the website you mentioned above: http://saveourantibiotics.org/news/press-release/eu-report-shows-high-levels-of-antibiotic-resistance-in-british-pigs-including-resistance-to-last-resort-human-antibiotic/ Antibiotics should have never been used as growth promoters.

As I said above https://conversation.which.co.uk/food-drink/uk-us-trade-deal-food-standards/#comment-1561798
We are not squeaky clean in the UK. We have had BSE through dodgy animal feed, overcrowding in livestock and poultry production, use of antibiotics to compensate for poor husbandry (perhaps).” I don’t think there is “wishful thinking” or “ignorance” about our food production. Antibiotics have the disadvantage of creating resistant strains, whether used in European or US strengths.

You said: “No one can force unacceptable food down our throats except by deception.” Unfortunately, we are not provided with the information we need to make an informed choice. We could have been told long ago that, for example, antibiotics were used as growth promoters in meat production. To my mind, lack of provision of information is little better than deception.

I’m not sure that the general public understands the risks of using antibiotics in farming or even the risks associated with intensive farming, so it is difficult to expect them to make informed choices. We will soon have the opportunity to introduce changes.

1. Food labelling should include relevant information so that we can make informed choices. If we import chlorine-washed chicken, GM salmon, hormone-treated beef for example it should say so.
2. Where there is deception we should have strong enough regulators to deal with it.
3. I think antibiotic resistance has been well publicised. However we should introduce regulations to ban their use as a mass treatment and as “precautionary” measures.
4. I wonder how the major food retailers will deal with food that does not align with current EU standards? Will they stock these US foods that we say are not acceptable?

I absolutely agree that we should be told, but so far we have not been told much about what goes in our food or about standards of animal husbandry. There are some exceptions such as ‘free range’ eggs (which is a bit far from what we might expect) and organically farmed produce.

As someone who has given lectures on the mode of action of antibiotics and touched on antibiotic resistance, I’m interested in how well the public understands the problem of antibiotic resistance and the contribution of farming practices. Having discussed this with many people I’m fairly confident that it is poorly understood by the public and it is difficult to find information to make an informed choice.

"difficult to find information to make an informed choice."

This is the crux of the problem for me. Most people don't appreciate the hidden, non-monetary cost of food production and I don't blame them. With all the information thrown at people and the way many producers market things it is often hard to see through all of that.