Chlorinated chickens overshadow U.S.-U.K. trade talks


London This week, Britain and the U.S. commenced talks on the potential for post-Brexit trade, though the talks have been overshadowed by concerns in Britain particularly over whether Britain would be forced to lower its food standards to accommodate U.S. demands.

The U.S.-U.K. Trade and Investment Working Group’s first meeting took place in Washington D.C. earlier this week. Rather like the working group set up between Britain and India to explore post-Brexit opportunities, the meetings cannot involve negotiations on a free trade deal, but can explore the potential of what could happen after Britain exits.

Striking such deals will be crucial for the government to be able to push forward with its plans to leave the EU Customs Union, which creates an area-wide tariff free zone, but requires member states to come to joint trading arrangements.

Latest controversy

The latest controversy over food standards — and in particular U.S. demands to allow the export of cheaper poultry washed in chlorine — highlights the difficulties of this process. The government, eager to show that it was “taking back control”, does not want to simply capitulate to demands of stronger nations just to secure trade deals.

Chlorine-washed chicken is currently banned under EU regulations, and public concern about such chicken coming to the U.K. remains high.

Europe’s reasoning for the ban is not because of the impact of the chlorine per se, but because the use of chlorine to wash the chicken leads to laxer safety standards, with poultry producers relying on this to “clean” the chicken.

“The issue of access to European poultry markets is a long-standing one for the U.S. and its vast chicken exporting industry,” wrote the Adam Smith Institute in a recent report, in which it said that to “nimbly” negotiate the trade deals it wanted post-Brexit, it would have to “compromise in allowing potential partners access to parts of its economy that the EU would never have accepted… Some of the country’s most influential lobbyists have made clear that they are keen on pressing for chlorinated chicken to be part of any U.S.-U.K. trade deal.”

Split within govt.

Trade secretary Liam Fox has dismissed concerns about chlorine-washed chicken as a “detail” at the very end of a sector of a potential free trade agreement, though Britain’s Environment Secretary Michael Gove said on Wednesday that Britain would not allow any lowering of standards in trade deals sought, including chlorinated chicken, highlighting the split within the U.K. government on the issue.

The British Poultry Council, which represents the sector, warned on Tuesday against the import of chlorine-washed chicken, warning it would be a “betrayal” to British farmers and an action that would “throw away British farming... a secure post-Brexit deal must be about Britain’s future food security and safety”.

While it may appear a small issue, it is reflective of wider concerns about a relaxation of standards and changes as Britain seeks to step up trade globally.

The British Medical Association and others have warned the government about the need to protect the NHS from privatisation in the event of a U.S.-U.K. trade deal, while there are fears that by relaxing its standards on a range of things, it will be harder for Britain to trade with the rest of the EU, which will maintain rigorous standards.

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