A majority of U.K. citizens would reject a trade deal with the U.S. if it meant lowering the current European food standards to accommodate U.S. agriculture. With U.S. products like chlorine-washed chicken of grave concern to the British public, the real question is not why the British don’t want these products, but rather why do Americans tolerate them?
In a poll on public attitudes toward Brexit, self-styled progressive think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research found that 82% of the U.K. public would prefer to keep existing E.U. style food standards, while only 8% said they would be willing to lower food safety standards to secure a trade deal with the U.S.
Though the IPPR presented the result as one supporting close co-operation with E.U. authorities, the poll revealed that both pro-Brexit and pro-Remain respondents would equally sacrifice a trade deal rather than deregulating agriculture in accordance with U.S. standards.
The European Food Standards Agency (EFSA) uses “precautionary principles” to make decisions based on “preventative decision-taking in the case of risk,” a far more cautious system than that used by the USDA and FDA, which are highly susceptible to special interest lobbies seeking to push risky products, often relying on data provided by the manufacturers themselves.
U.K. Trade Deal
Agricultural commodities have become prime targets in President Trump’s international “trade war.” China retaliated against steel tariffs with its own duties on U.S. fruit, pork, and soybeans while key importer of U.S. corn, Mexico has turned toward Brazilian farmers. It looks like food could become a major sticking point in trade negotiations with Britain. Trump lamented European tariffs and regulation on Twitter in March:
“Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross will be speaking with representatives of the European Union about eliminating the large Tariffs and Barriers they use against the U.S.A. Not fair to our farmers and manufacturers.”
What Trump, well known for his fast-food affinity, has not acknowledged are the vastly different agricultural philosophies that divide the two continents. Wilbur Ross hinted that the U.K. will need to remove a range of “key hindrances” to achieve a trade deal with the U.S. post-Brexit, He declared that the U.K. would need to “reduce unnecessary divergence in regulation and standards” to facilitate trade and accused Europe of being unscientific in its standards surrounding sanitary matters, presumably referring to the U.S. procedure of disinfecting chickens with chlorine.
A Difference in Standards
Chlorine washed chicken has become symbolic of the debate. The E.U. has deemed the chickens themselves safe for consumption but rejected them on the basis of animal welfare. Chlorine washes are used on slaughtered chickens to kill bacteria such as Salmonella that is more likely to occur as a result of unhygienic and cruel industrial farming. Food safety expert Simon Dawson wrote that:
“Some US abattoirs and processing plants rely heavily on chlorination because their other hygiene standards are so poor that they would be illegal in Europe. The process is also very good at removing odors and surface slime, meaning the meat can be passed off as fresh for much longer than it should be.”
Chlorinating chicken is far from the only U.S. agricultural practice banned across Europe. Others include feeding poultry feces to cattle (and vice versa), arsenic in animal feed, farming practices that disregard animal welfare, and the use of hormones, antibiotics and other drugs to promote unnatural growth in livestock – a practice that has serious public health implications as microbes are developing immunity to antibiotics that humans rely on medically.
A range of U.S. food additives, preservatives, pesticides, and GMOs are also banned across Europe, although Monsanto’s controversial “RoundUp” glyphosphate weedkiller recently won a renewed five-year license by the EFSA despite a 1.3 million strong petition to ban the chemical.
Labeling and the Right to Choose
Liberty-minded folk would argue that the answer is not regulation, but rather that consumers should be presented with a choice on what products to buy, thereby influencing market forces. This only works if products are clearly and accurately labeled, however, and U.S. Big Agriculture has repeatedly shown its efforts to undermine food labeling laws. There is no clearer example of this than the labeling of genetically modified (GMO) foods. Agriculture lobbyists have resisted GMO labeling for years and it appears that even regulation won’t be enough to keep consumers informed of what they’re eating.
After years of pushing from state governments and millions of dollars in counter-campaigning from biotech giants, the USDA recently released new GMO labeling regulations, but critics are already calling them toothless. According to Food and Water Watch, the rules are filled with loopholes by which companies can avoid clear labeling, and was specifically designed to pre-empt an impending Vermont law which would have enforced clear, on-package identification for GMOs in the state. One such loophole is the allowance of “smart labels” requiring consumers to scan QR codes to find out whether the product is genetically modified.
The department has released a series of potential labels for genetically modified foods. In an attempt to confuse the market, however, they have replaced the commonly recognized term “GMO” with the word “bioengineered” in order to re-brand a product with a toxic public relations image.Screenshot from ams.usda.gov
The logos are manipulative and designed to steer the consumer toward a positive impression. Done in cheerful, inoffensive yellows and greens, one option even resembles a flower. In what can only be described as a clumsy attempt at subliminal advertising, the images contain the central letters “be” underlined with a semicircle, creating an image clearly indicative of a “smiley face.” With such a friendly looking logo, how could Americans doubt the quality of “bioengineered” food?
Regardless of the merits and failings of genetically modified food, the USDA’s opaque labeling rules illustrate that Big Agriculture is not willing to compensate for deregulation by allowing the consumer any agency over their dietary choices. The global charity, Oxfam, rates U.S. food as the world’s cheapest compared to the cost of other goods and services, but those financial savings come at a cost. Big Agriculture is happy to make billions of dollars forcing independent farmers into industrial farming and foisting sub-par food onto an unsuspecting American public, is it any surprise that the British want no part of it?