Chlorinated chicken, pork with growth hormone, sponge cake made with cruelly produced eggs and more could be coming into British kitchens if MPs don’t ban sub-standard foreign food in a crucial vote next week.
As ministers and negotiators attempt to thrash out post-Brexit trade deals with the U.S. and Australia, there has been growing alarm at the prospect of chlorinated chicken from these countries flooding British supermarkets.
But although poultry – and how it is treated both before and after slaughter – is an issue of great concern on the grounds of animal welfare and the wellbeing of consumers, the truth is that chicken is just the start. And it’s not just chicken. It’s beef, pork, lamb, dairy, fruit, vegetables, rapeseed oil, sugar, animal feed — the list of what could be affected is lengthy.
The deals our Government is trying to strike with potential trade partners – especially America – could have a possibly catastrophic effect on what we eat every day.
Sue Davies, head of food policy at the consumer group Which? says people are right to be worried and to ask questions about the quality of foreign food imports, the impact on their health – and the consequences of cheap imports for British farming. “We’ve gone through BSE, we’ve gone through [the horsemeat scandal]. Things aren’t perfect in the UK, but we’ve generally put quite strict farm-to-fork rules in place. I don’t think that people would necessarily realise the differences in the types of systems some of these countries have.”
Last month, an alliance of TV chefs, celebrities and charities – signatories included Jamie Oliver, fitness guru Joe Wicks and the RSPCA – wrote an open letter calling on the Prime Minister to ‘not trade away our children’s future’ by inundating our market with cut-price, toxic and tasteless imports of foodstuffs which may have been produced using methods not permitted here.
The Government has, so far, refused legislation to safeguard the UK’s high standards in food production via the Agriculture Bill – Tory MPs have voted down amendments to that effect – but was heavily defeated in the Lords two weeks ago when peers overwhelmingly backed calls for greater powers to block sub-standard food imports.
Now time is fast running out. On Monday, the Agriculture Bill returns to the Commons to start its second reading followed by a crunch debate in which MPs will vote on whether new watchdogs are given the power to enforce high standards on imported produce. The farming minister, Victoria Prentis, has written to Tory MPs saying that the Government will not support such amendments.
Liz Truss, the International Trade Secretary, has insisted a trade deal will not water down any UK food standards. “It is against the law to import chlorinated chicken and hormone-injected beef, and we will not be negotiating that away as part of a trade deal,” she has said.
However, experts point out that there is a reason why standards may fall as a result of any trade deal. It concerns food produced in a way that is – in the eyes of Britain and Europe authorities – unsafe for human consumption. This includes the infamous chlorinated chicken, but also growth hormones in beef, antibiotics used in dairy cows and certain pesticides used on crops.
It is true, as Truss says, that these are banned under current legislation. But America and Australia insist these farming practices are safe and see no reason why they should change them if we want to buy their products.
Nick von Westenholz, director of International Trade at the National Farmers Union (NFU), says why growth hormones in beef – outlawed in the European Union because of worries about the effect one children’s health – could end up in the UK diet. “The U.S. hate that prohibition. They think it’s totally unjustified and they will be putting massive pressure on the UK Government to change the rule… in the eyes of the U.S., this is an illegal ban on their beef. They will insist on it being removed.” The key factor, he points out, is that the World Trade Organisation sides with America, saying that our current ban on hormones is unfair and should be dropped. Will we have enough clout to say ‘no’ to the United States of America?
Ian Wright, of the Food and Drink Federation, which represents most of Britain’s big food manufacturers, maintains that standards are unlikely to fall. “Animal welfare and food safety standards are almost all driven by the shopper, so it is extraordinary to think the British consumer would accept any lower standards,” he says.
However, will consumers know where their products have come from after any deal? Although supermarkets might not accept chlorinated chicken, catering companies supplying work and school canteens might feel differently. “If it becomes widespread within the catering sector,” says Sue Davies at Which? “will supermarkets stick to higher animal welfare standards? It could become a slippery slope.”
So exactly which types of meals, snacks and treats could be at risk of being hit by lower standards?
1. Takeaway chicken curry – with meat from America
Will Tesco, Aldi or Waitrose start selling chlorinated chicken? No. Most supermarkets have vowed that they would not sell it. Nearly all of the fresh chicken they sell is British in any case. However, we import £1.6 billion of poultry meat – 27 per cent of all the chicken we eat – from abroad. Most of this ends up in the catering sector: school canteens, service station sandwiches and cheaper takeaways.
Chlorinated chicken is such a hot topic, not because of the chlorine, but because American slaughterhouses use the chlorine to wash away disease from the chickens. Not always very successfully. Take salmonella: in the U.S. there are 23,000 hospitalisations and 450 deaths a year. In the EU as a whole, which has a population almost two times larger than the U.S., there are approximately 1,766 hospitalisations and just ten deaths.
American chlorine-washed chicken might not be on offer in your supermarket, but it could end up in your takeaway curry.
2. Lasagne with beef from Australia
In recent years, we have started to understand the potential damage caused by feeding antibiotics to animals. The more antibiotics are used, the more resistant animals – and possibly us humans – become to bacteria.
In the UK, farmers have been phasing out preventative antibiotics. But in the U.S., Australia and Brazil they are routinely added to animal feed. Approximately 40 per cent of Australia’s beef is produced in intensive feedlot systems where the animals are kept in close confinement and fed largely on grain.
Beef carries with it an 80 per cent tariff, which makes non-EU beef currently very expensive. If we struck a deal with Australia and as a result that tariff was lowered, we could expect lots of U.S. and Australian beef to end up in our cheaper processed food, such as a budget lasagne.
3. Burgers with U.S. beef
It is not just growth hormones that worry some people about American beef, it is the conditions in which cattle are kept. A prime example is the maximum time an animal is allowed to be transported to an abattoir before they are slaughtered. In the UK, it is 14 hours before they must be given a rest period of at least an hour, given liquid and fed. In the U.S., it is 28 hours. Various other safeguards in the EU are absent in the U.S.
4. Victoria Sponge with U.S. egg powder
Nearly all the eggs we buy in Britain are laid here. But only 80 per cent of the eggs we eat are what are known as ‘shell eggs’. The rest are ‘liquid eggs’ – already cracked and sold to food manufacturers and caterers, who use them to make cakes and other processed food. We import the equivalent of 1.7 million eggs a year for this purpose.
Europe has phased out battery cages for hens, with British farmers estimating it cost them £400 million to upgrade welfare standards. Though some liberal U.S. states have banned battery eggs, there is no law against the cruel conditions, which see hens trapped in a space no larger than a sheet of A4.
5. Margarita pizza with cheese from U.S.
One of the key aims of the American trade negotiating team is to get its cheese into Britain. But you won’t see U.S. cheese on the deli counter, alongside Stilton or French Comte; it is far more likely to end up in processed food – notably on top of pizzas. Currently, grated cheese imported into the EU carries a 36 per cent tariff. Lower this and the U.S. could become a major supplier.
The problem is that the U.S. allows bovine somatotropin, a growth hormone, to be injected into its dairy cows. This drug can increase milk production, but it also increases the risk of mastitis, diarrhoea and other diseases.
It has been banned in the UK since 1990 and the EU since 2000. The U.S. is likely to insist on carrying on using the drug.
6. Frozen chicken breasts from U.S.
In a UK supermarket, nearly all the fresh chicken is British. Supermarkets know that most consumers like to buy local. But that’s not the case when it comes to frozen. Cooked, frozen chicken breast can come from all sorts of places, notably Poland, Europe’s biggest chicken exporter.
The EU has rules about the welfare of chickens kept in barns, notably how much light the birds get, how cramped their living conditions are, and ammonia levels. In the U.S., there are no federal regulations to safeguard the welfare of the animals. True, most American producers follow its National Chicken Council guidelines, but these give the birds access to less light and allow higher levels of ammonia than in Europe.
7. Bacon from U.S. or Mexico
Ractopamine is a growth- promoter used in pigs, making them grow faster and leaner without them needing as much food. The drugs have been banned in the EU since 1996 and in 160 countries in total, even in China – which is not known for its high animal welfare standards.
The drug can cause pigs to become too sick or injured to walk but that is not the reason it is banned. It is outlawed over risks to human health – it has been associated with causing an increase in heart rates.
It is not banned in the U.S. We currently import 60 per cent of all the pork we eat in the UK. But could we switch to far cheaper American pork, if the U.S. can persuade us to drop our ban on ractopamine? The NFU think this is a strong possibility. “The U.S. pork lobby has been one of the most active around trade in the last couple of years. They are over in London the whole time,” says Mr von Westenholz at the NFU.
8. Cooking oil with rapeseed from Australia
Neonicotinoids are the world’s most widely used insecticide aimed at killing crop-destroying insects, and used particularly by rapeseed farmers. However, while they are harmless to humans, they pose a serious risk to bees – crucial to the pollination of many crops.
They have now been banned in the EU on environmental grounds, but are still used in Australia, Canada and in some places in the U.S.
9. Red apples from the U.S.
Britain produces a mere 39 per cent of all the apples it consumes. Apples are one of the many crops grown around the world that are treated with the nasty pesticide chlorpyrifos. For years farmers, including those in Britain, have used it to kill insects attacking their crops, even though it is toxic to birds as well.
Last year, the European Food Safety Agency found chlorpyrifos was possibly associated with brain damage and low IQs in children and banned it, concluding it may have no possible safe limit and therefore does ‘not meet the human health criteria for renewal on the European market’.
10. Pepperoni with pork from North America
The cheap, spicy salami or chorizo we buy in the UK is usually made from German pork. For years, German farms used something known as sow gestation stalls, which were outlawed in the UK in 1999, but still used widely around the world.
The stalls, which in effect trap the sows and leave them barely able to move during their 16-week pregnancy, are designed to protect the pigs from being attacked by other pigs. But many welfare campaigners consider them cruel. Germany this year announced it, too, is banning them.
They are still widely used in America and Canada. Pork currently attracts a 30 per cent tariff coming into the EU, but if a trade deal was struck and this fell, American pork would be significantly cheaper than German pork for Britain to import.
Original source: www.dailymail.co.uk