If we’re honest, food standards was hardly the most prominent issue in the referendum campaign. Somewhere between the endless mud-slinging over sovereignty, immigration and economics, any debates over agricultural practices after Brexit were understandably side-lined.
But since the Government has made its intentions clear on both leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union, and since only the most optimistic Brexiteers harbour any hope of concluding a trade agreement with the EU in the next two years, perhaps it is time we started to pay more attention to the effect Brexit might have on the products we take off the supermarket shelves as we prepare for a future under WTO trading rules.
The negotiation of any trade deal is largely governed by a desire to harmonise regulatory standards. As such, they tend to favour the party with the larger market when it comes to dictating the terms of exchange. This being the case we can’t expect to go into any new trade deal with the same negotiating clout we had enjoyed with our membership of the European Union. Deals with the likes of China, Japan and the USA cannot be feasible unless concessions are made to these larger economies.
Crucially, we will be negotiating without the protection of European regulatory rules regarding food hygiene and labelling. A hastily concluded trade deal with the United States for instance, would invariably result in British agriculture adopting regulatory standards that are very much the same as those employed in the states.
But is this anything to worry about?
Whilst we could certainly be convinced that most foodstuffs and agricultural practices that are commonplace in the US could be introduced here with little disruption, there are very good reasons why the EU has banned many others.
Take the issue of chlorinated chicken for instance. Whereas EU law requires chicken to be reared, slaughtered, and treated with extreme hygienic care at each stage, In the USA, most poultry farmers opt to remove harmful pathogens such as Salmonella and E. Coli by dipping the carcasses in a chemical bath of either diluted chlorine dioxide or peroxyacetic acid.
To be fair to our friends across the pond, chicken processed in a chemical bath is not considered dangerous in normal portions. However, if trace amounts of chlorate are allowed to build up in the body they can become carcinogenic and have been linked to respiratory illnesses.
Other products, such as flour bleaching agents and certain pesticides banned in the EU could also pose potential problems for British consumers should any trade deal insist on their legality. Flour bleaching agents produce a chemical called Alloxan which has known links to diabetes.
As for pesticides, there is currently a sizeable gap in what chemicals can be used and how much between Britain and America. Chemical pesticides such as Pyrethrin and Pertox are under a strict ban in the EU for good reason, but are legal in the U.S to treat corn and soya beans. This tension will have to be negotiated if the Government wants any hope of negotiating a quick-fix trade deal with the states after Brexit.
We would expect the issue of pesticides to put negotiators at loggerheads. The tension in this debate stems from differing positions on how much pesticide residue can remain on a crop when it is sold on supermarket shelves (hint: the EU prefers less of it). Given the circumstances, it would be desirable if we could keep regulations as they are. Exposure to excessive pesticide residues has already been linked to considerable health risks in American crops, and pyrethroids can cause serious liver damage if allowed to build up in the body.
If this all sounds a little like doom-mongering, we should be able to fall back on the consoling thought that even if our post-Brexit trade negotiators failed to say no to the legalisation of these products, we could always just not buy them. Britain is after all a free country with a free market and we can always opt to purchase meat and veg that hasn’t been given the ‘all-American’ chemical treatment.
Well, we SHOULD be able to think that, but it’s not really that simple when you consider how laws might have to change in accommodating differences on food labelling. All trade deals boil down to harmonising regulatory standards, and how the food is labelled and sold will be a crucial aspect of any talks dictated by WTO rules.
Liam Fox and the rest of the Department for International Trade will have to consider how much ground they want to give away in this respect, particularly as they could be dealing with a nation which still officially classifies pizza as a vegetable.
In any respect, our determination to score trade deals in a brave new world outside the European Union should not lead us to take unnecessary risks with the health and safety of British consumers. Concessions will have to be made because of Brexit, but if our politicians and negotiators aren’t prepared to draw red lines on food safety, very soon all our chlorine-washed chickens will be coming home to roost.