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.
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.
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.