Furore over food standards reaching fever pitch

On 22 September, the Lords inflicted a defeat on the government when it voted, in line with the government’s own manifesto pledge, for an amendment to the Agriculture Bill to uphold our food, animal welfare and environmental standards. What was the government doing voting against its own manifesto pledge in the first place?

Government has waffled, unconvincingly, about these issues being ‘adequately’ covered elsewhere in the law, and the Agriculture Bill not being the right place for them – which is puzzling, because where else would you enshrine agricultural standards, if not in the UK’s first agricultural bill for 50 years?

The government is increasingly at odds with the electorate on this issue. In a recent interview with The Spectator, former International Trade Secretary and World Trade Organisation Director General candidate Liam Fox said “Trade is about more than the exchange of goods and services; it’s about values.”

High quality food, the kindest possible treatment of animals reared for food or dairy products, and respect for our natural environment are values with overwhelming backing from the British public. A recent Which? Poll showed 86 per cent of us are against any lowering of these standards whatsoever. How many other issues can you think of that command such support?

We have come a long way since the dark days of the mad cow disease outbreak, which claimed 177 human victims and resulted in the slaughter of over 5 million cattle. It was not only a public health and animal welfare tragedy, but it was also a commercial disaster. British beef was banned in many countries. Some of those bans endured for decades. In fact, the last ban wasn’t lifted until early 2019, by Japan. How wonderful then, that our reputation as a world-leading food producer has been ‘built back better’ to the point that we can now celebrate a free trade deal with Japan.

The progress the UK has made in food, farming and environmental standards has been hard won. Why should we throw all of that away for the sake of a trade deal? Wasn’t Brexit supposed to be about taking back control and exercising our sovereignty to do as we choose? We have chosen to set high standards. ‘Chlorinated chicken’ has become the emblem of alternative standards inimical to our own. Although we’ve (so far) been spared the spectacle of MPs forcing their children to eat it on TV, John Gummer-style, there has been robust defence of chlorinated chicken.

There’s chlorine in water.” True, but only 0.2-1mg/litre versus 50mg/litre in a pathogen reduction treatment. “A chlorine wash makes American chicken safer to eat than our own.” Evidence points the other way: the incidence of foodborne illness in the US is 1 in 6, whereas in the UK it is 1 in 62, while resulting deaths are more than three times greater in the US. “Ah, but the EU’s own regulator, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), said chlorine washes weren’t harmful.” Not the wash itself, no —except possibly for children, depending on how much chlorine they’re ingesting from other sources. One of the main problems is that chlorine wash isn’t particularly effective at killing pathogens like salmonella, campylobacter or E.coli, and can actually make them undetectable, rather than eliminate them (University of Southampton, 2018). It is the reason such washes are used in the first place that is alarming: to compensate for lower animal welfare standards throughout the chicken’s life-cycle.

Concerns about animal welfare are far wider-ranging than chlorinated chickens: from poor, cramped conditions for animals and fowl, to the use of dangerous additives like ractopamine for pig and cattle rearing, which even China and Russia ban, to over-use of antibiotics. Since 2013 British farmers have adopted best-in-class rearing techniques and steadily reduced antibiotic use by 40 per cent, and use of critically important antibiotics by 51 per cent. Typical antibiotic usage in British livestock is now 60mg/kg, compared to 180mg/kg in American livestock. Taking all types of animals and fowl into account, antibiotic use in the US is five times that of the UK. Overuse and/or misuse of antibiotics in farming contributes to resistance to antibiotic treatment of bacterial infections in humans. Rising antibiotic resistance means longer illnesses, increased hospitalisations and more treatment failures, resulting in early deaths, placing a strain on both our NHS and our GDP.

At the root of the differences between UK and US farming practices is philosophy. The UK adheres to the precautionary principle, by which producers must first prove their products are safe before being allowed on the market, whereas the US favours evidence-based risk-management practices, where the burden of proof is on the regulator to show beyond doubt that a product is harmful before it will be removed from the market. US regulators also have to prove that the risk can’t just be managed by lowering recommended intake, so, for example, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provides a list of permitted thresholds of ‘food defect levels’:  up to 10 per cent mould in citrus fruit juices, up to 20 maggots per 100g can of mushrooms, up to 30 insect parts per 100g of peanut butter, and so on.

A further public health concern is ultra-processed foods (UPFs), which contribute to obesity. For every 1 per cent increase in the consumption of ultra-processed foods, there’s a corresponding 0.25 per cent increase in obesity. The UK already has a serious problem with obesity, and the prime minister has selected it as one of his special areas of focus. The prevalence of obesity is 26.9 per cent in our population, compared to 42.4 per cent in the US, the difference being partly attributable to UPFs: 58-61 per cent in the US versus 50 per cent in the UK. Obesity is thought to cost the wider economy £27bn annually, of which £6.1bn falls on the already stretched NHS.

Cheaper food for the poor” is the refrain we often hear in justification of a UK/US trade deal. However, that this will be the outcome is far from certain, as there is little difference in meat prices, and any advantage American products enjoy would likely be lost in transportation costs. A Lords’ committee found that what people really need is healthy food. Calorie for calorie, it is three times more expensive to eat a diet based on lean meat, vegetables and fruit. The recommendation was to subsidise healthier foods to reduce the burden on people’s health, the environment and the NHS.

Is all this moot if there is a pledge in the Tory manifesto to uphold, and even enhance food, farming and environmental standards? International Trade Secretary Liz Truss wrote a letter reiterating that pledge, and MPs have severally given undertakings in parliament. So why doesn’t the public trust them? Quite possibly because the public is smarter than is often credited by politicians.

Photo by Sam Carter on Unsplash

As ever, UK may not want food standards on the table in the trade talks with the US, but the UK isn’t the country laying the table,” tweeted trade expert Sam Lowe.

Here are reasons why the public is right to be wary:

  • Government has spoken openly of a dual-tariff regime – for example, letting chlorinated chicken in, but on a higher quota for 10 years;
  • the testimony of trade experts at Select Committees suggests we will have no choice but to let poor quality American food in, given the US is the dominant negotiating partner;
  • proposed membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trade bloc: the chapter on food hygiene was largely written by the US and is weighted against the precautionary principle that the UK uses;
  • the US is opposed to the detailed labelling that would permit consumers to make an informed choice;
  • consumers in restaurants, or patients in hospital, would never know where the ingredients in their food come from;
  • it is unlikely that outside the EU we will be able to maintain the ban on American produce, which rests on it being unfit for human consumption (which it’s not; it’s unhealthy) rather than animal welfare;
  • if the US and UK were to agree a régime of mutual recognition, we would be forced to accept US food as being produced to at least the same minimum standards as our own; and
  • trust is low after those concerned with animal welfare were accused of spreading ’fake news’ by saying there is no protocol on animal sentience in UK law (there isn’t) in November 2017.

There are both precautionary and evidential reasons to keep American farm products off of our supermarket shelves, especially if we are to follow the British Medical Association’s recommendation of ‘Health in all Policies’. The government’s own figures suggest a free trade agreement with the US is worth only an extra 0.16 per cent in GDP, roughly £2.9bn, over 15 years. Is it worth it, when, even before we take into account the commercial impact on our own farming industry, the cost to public health is so much higher?

Sadly this is a government that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, so unless we write to our MPs and lobby them, we may experience the biggest decline in the quality of life since World War II.