Sky News | 15 June 2020
US trade deal ’could pose greatest risk to UK food since BSE crisis’
by Tamara Cohen
A US trade deal could pose the greatest risk to food safety since the mad cow disease crisis 20 years ago, the government has been warned.
Consumer group Which? has written to International Trade Secretary Liz Truss as a new round of negotiations gets under way between US and UK officials.
The letter, seen by Sky News, raises concerns that the government has changed its stance on animal welfare and food safety in order to strike a US trade deal.
Research by Which? shows that 72% of the British public do not want products such as chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-fed beef to be allowed on sale in the UK at all.
In his election manifesto, Boris Johnson promised the UK would "not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards".
But recent attempts by MPs to insert a permanent ban into legislation have failed, and ministers are understood to be considering proposals to allow in some of these products.
Sue Davies, head of consumer protection and food policy at Which?, told Sky News: "We’re very concerned that the government seems to be backtracking on its commitments."
In a letter to Ms Truss, she wrote: "The UK should be proud of the strides we have made over the past two decades to ensure that wherever people buy and eat food it is underpinned by robust safety, quality and welfare standards.
"Since the BSE crisis, the UK has led a food safety revolution that has given us an enviable system across the food chain.
"This could all be at risk depending on the approach that the government takes when it begins a second round of trade talks with the US on Monday."
Which? urges the government to "leave the issue out of trade deals altogether", but US trade deals tend to prioritise giving American farmers access to new markets.
In a newspaper article in January, US ambassador Woody Johnson argued that chlorinated chicken is safe and must "absolutely be included" in the talks on a US trade deal.
Free market Tory MPs, including some in the cabinet, are open to overturning the UK’s ban on these products and allowing shoppers to make their own choice.
To prevent UK farmers being undercut, one proposal under consideration is a "dual tariff" system whereby any imported US meat produced using these controversial methods would be slapped with a high tariff.
Meanwhile, produce which meets current UK standards would be charged at a lower rate, or exempt.
Ms Davies said letting these products into the UK at all would create a "two-tier system" whereby cheap food - available in schools and NHS canteens for example - would have lower standards.
Chlorine-washing chicken is done to eliminate infection, and hormones are given to animals to boost yield, but campaigners say these practices allow lower welfare standards and poorer hygiene in the farming process.
A government spokesperson said: "We remain firmly committed to upholding our high environmental, food safety and animal welfare standards outside the EU, and the EU Withdrawal Act will transfer all existing EU food safety provisions, including existing import requirements, on to the UK statute book.
"These import standards include a ban on using artificial growth hormones in domestic and imported products and set out that no products, other than potable water, are approved to decontaminate poultry carcasses.
"Any changes to existing food safety legislation would require new legislation to be brought before this parliament."
The spokesperson added that UK food standards are overseen by the Food Standards Agency whose decisions "will be made separately from any trade agreement".
Ms Truss, who represents a rural constituency in Norfolk, said last month that a US trade deal would represent a "huge opportunity for all farmers" to reach new markets, and that standards would be set so that "British farmers are always able to compete".
But some senior Tory MPs fear the government is prepared to use its 80-seat majority to end the ban in order to strike a deal with the US.
Today’s second round of talks will last two weeks, with around 100 negotiators on each side meeting remotely.
Former environment secretary Theresa Villiers wants the UK to keep its ban on chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-fed beef.
She said: "I was very clear that the bans must remain in place. But there seems to have been a change and the government is not giving the assurances which I was that these bans will remain on the statute book.
"An unprecedented coalition of farmers, environmentalists and welfare campaigners are saying we should uphold our values and reflect them in our trade policy.
"Our negotiating team should not sell those short and should be prepared to walk away if the Americans make unreasonable demands."
The BSE, or mad cow disease, crisis in the 1980s and 1990s was devastating for UK farmers.
Over four million cows were slaughtered to contain the outbreak, and 177 people died after contracting the human form of the disease.
British beef exports were banned by many countries for years afterwards, and it led to much tighter food standards in the UK.