The Guardian | 10 April 2018
Costly medicines and pus in milk: a Brexit trade deal that’ll make you sick
by Nick Dearden, director of Global Justice Now
The British public is already scared about a trade deal with the US. They don’t care for chickens washed in chlorine, nor for cows stuffed with hormones. But this week, an epic US document setting out the barriers to foreign trade it would like to remove shows that these concerns are just the tip of the iceberg.
Not only do the 400-plus pages detail a stomach-churning list of foods the US would like to import into Britain – more pus in your milk and more pesticides on your vegetables – but they also uncover the US government’s distaste for the way the EU regulates big pharmaceutical corporations generally. The US would certainly ask us to strip away these regulations as part of a post-Brexit trade deal, which in turn poses a direct threat to NHS budgets and our ability to get our hands on life-saving medicines in the future.
So a US trade deal could be both bad for our health, and bad for helping us get better again. In its report, the US government is clear that it hates the EU’s food policies. It wants to export chlorinated chicken (meat rinsed in antimicrobial wash as an alternative to keeping and killing animals in healthy conditions), and meat from animals stuffed with hormones, steroids, ractopamine, and endocrine disrupters (chemicals that mess with animals’ hormones and can cause cancer and birth defects).
The list goes on, with the US unhappy about the EU’s “cautious” approach to approving genetically modified goods, chemical flavourings in food and the amount of pesticide residue allowed in fruits and nuts. They even think the amount of “somatic cells” allowed in milk in the EU is too restrictive. The US allows more white blood cells in milk than anywhere else in the world, even though this often indicates infection in the cow.
The US argues that this is a matter of customer choice. But that’s disingenuous, both because importing this food will inevitably drive down standards here, and because, as we discover in the document, the US dislikes the sort of food labelling that allows the consumer to make an informed choice.
If all of this is starting to make you feel queasy, it gets worse when you look at the “treatment” side of the equation. Medicines in the US are vastly more expensive than they are in Europe. So it’s little wonder that the US, batting for big pharma, disagrees with the (still very moderate) limitations many European governments place on pharmaceutical corporations.
For starters, the US complains that there is “a lack of meaningful stakeholder input” into these policies. In turn this creates “uncertainty and unpredictability” and can “undermine incentives to market and innovate further”.
In Britain, for instance, the NHS has some limited power to negotiate the price of medicines. It also has a framework for what is and isn’t “value for money”. None of this is to the taste of the US administration. Indeed, it even has a problem with the (again very limited) transparency the EU forces on pharmaceutical corporations to disclose drug trial dates. Drug trials are notoriously opaque, with vital information routinely withheld from the public, making it harder to scrutinise prices or even the real efficacy of medicines.
This is the same agenda that the US has been pursuing in other trade deals. The American campaign group Public Citizen shows how the US routinely pushes for greater monopoly rights for pharmaceutical companies in trade deals. On the government’s list are demands to make it easier to renew patents on medicines, allow an even greater degree of corporate control over clinical test data, grant new patents on biological medicines (including many new cancer treatments) and give corporations a greater say in healthcare policy.
All of this amounts to a simple reality: if the US successfully pushes through these top-line demands in a trade deal with the UK, the NHS would either have to spend more money on drugs each year, or more patients would be denied access to those drugs.
The secretive US-UK trade working group, led by the trade secretary, Liam Fox, met two weeks ago. We are not allowed to know much about the talks, but we do know that “services, investment, intellectual property rights and enforcement, regulatory issues” were discussed. That means: all of the above. Changes in regulatory standards on food and healthcare will be the price Trump charges for a trade deal with the UK. And we know that Fox himself has few qualms about lower food standards.
So public attention is urgently needed here. But there is some good news too. First, Fox is wildly out of step with the British public. An opinion poll released over the weekend shows that a whopping 82% of Brits would rather not have a trade deal with the US than sacrifice decent food standards. Only 8% would put a trade deal first.
Second, the trade bill, shelved for the time being as Theresa May fears losing a vote on the customs union, will have to return to parliament soon. MPs must take this opportunity to vote for powers to properly scrutinise the trade secretary and to have the right to stop trade deals they don’t like. The stakes couldn’t be higher. If we don’t want to give in to Trump’s trade demands, we must make trade policy democratic.