When (or if) the United Kingdom leaves the European Union—Brexit is still scheduled for March 29—it will no longer be able to take advantage of the EU’s trade deals. That means that rather than relying on the EU’s existing deal with the U.S., London will get to create its own bilateral agreement with Washington. But agriculture, health and consumer safety advocates are increasingly concerned about the repercussions if the U.K. starts relying more on cheap food imports from the United States.
And American chicken, often rinsed with chlorinated water to eliminate harmful bacteria, has landed smack dab in the middle of the debate.
Last week, the U.S. released its guidelines for trade negotiations with the U.K., including “comprehensive market access” for American agricultural products and the removal of “sanitary and physiosanitary” standards on imported goods.
That language rang alarm bells in the U.K., which for years has butted heads with the U.S. over chicken production. It abides by the EU’s 1997 outlawing of antimicrobial baths for chicken that’s based on the premise that the technique allows unsanitary practices elsewhere in the production chain. The ban has protected the European chicken market—the U.K.’s included—from cheaper U.S. imports—a safeguard that could disappear in the U.K. after Brexit. A new trade deal between London and Washington that introduces American chicken to the U.K. would not only give Brits the option of consuming the poultry, domestic chicken producers in the U.K. may be forced to adopt the cheaper, chlorinated approach to production themselves in order to stay competitive.
But initial reaction from U.K. lawmakers indicates they’re not willing to budge on the issue.
“We have always been very clear that we will not lower our food standards as part of a future trading agreement,” a spokesperson for Prime Minister Theresa May said last week.
U.K. Environment Secretary Michael Gove has long vowed that food and welfare standards will be maintained in the U.K. no matter the ramifications of Brexit. The pro-Brexit former farming minister George Eustice called the U.S.’s food safety standards “woefully inadequate” and “backward,” and suggested that the U.S. join the back of the line for post-Brext trade deals if it expects the U.K. to accept them.
The president of Britain’s National Farmers’ Union, Minette Batters, told The Guardian, “It is imperative that any future trade deals, including a possible deal with the USA, do not allow the imports of food produced to lower standards than those required of British farmers.”
Even Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle stepped into the fray, expressing her unease about “industrial U.S. food systems,” according to the Daily Mail.
Woody Johnson, the U.S. ambassador to the U.K., meanwhile, has defended the American technique of chicken production. In an opinion piece in the Telegraph, he argued that critiques of American food standards were a protectionist “smear campaign,” largely driven by the European Union to create barriers against U.S. farm products. “Inflammatory and misleading terms like ‘chlorinated chicken’ and ‘hormone beef’ are deployed to cast American farming in the worst possible light,” he wrote.
But Johnson remains optimistic about the U.S.-U.K. trade relationship nonetheless. “I have confidence that whatever way you decide to go [with Brexit] that the U.S. and our special relationship will continue and prosper, no matter what,” he told BBC Radio on Wednesday. “There’s a lot of danger out there, so our relationship is more important now than ever whatever happens with Brexit.”