Acid Bath Chicken: could the UK face a flock of foreign food post-Brexit?

Posted On: 
6th March 2019

Dods Monitoring consultant Alex Tiley explores what the introduction of PRT poultry could mean for the UK.

The political climate of chlorinated chicken

Last May, headlines ran with vivid descriptions warning that the UK could be flooded by cheap chlorine washed chicken as part of a post-Brexit trade agreement between the UK and the United States of America. The background chatter around this was substantial, and much was speculated on the intentions of the US Agricultural Lobby and what it could mean for people in the UK.

In response, Michael Gove said that he would veto any trade deal that would allow for its import.

In the last few months, as the possibility of a No-Deal Brexit has become more realistic, the concerns over what a future UK-US trade deal have begun again. The increased pressure to rapidly negotiate a deal, combined with the President’s “America First” agenda will likely weaken the UK’s negotiation position. American farmer representatives, such as the American National Farmer’s Union and the American Farm Bureau Federation have encouraged the Trade Representative of the United States to push for trade deals post Brexit that would allow for the import of products like PRT chicken, GMO’s and hormone supplemented beef, arguing that it is scientifically proven to be safe.  

Understanding chlorinated chicken and its application

Chlorinated chicken, or “Pathogen Reduction Treatment” poultry, is a process by which the slaughtered bird is given an antimicrobial rinse containing 20-50 parts per million of chlorine post slaughter in order to eliminate microorganisms such as campylobacter.

This chemical cleaning process allows for the sanitary production standards to be much lower than they otherwise would. Farms in the United States, which are able to operate significantly larger, intensive models, can therefore operate at higher yield, and lower cost.

Why is PRT poultry currently prohibited?

One of the key arguments against the import of these products by animal welfare advocates is the poor animal welfare standards associated with PRT poultry, and the effect this may have on domestic standards and the ethical of food in supermarkets. However, it is important that we understand the current justifications for why the European Food Safety Authority currently prohibits its import:

PRT chicken is a long running feud between the United States and the EU, the decision of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to prohibit the import or transport of the produce through the EU.  And is symptomatic of the different approach they take: namely that stricter production standards are more desirable than PRT at reducing microbial contamination.

Critically, the EFSA did not conclude that PRT chicken was harmful in anyway, or that it should be prohibited due to animal welfare reasons. Rather the justification was that the process was a compensation for poor sanitary standards during production, and  that to allow the import would lead for a decrease in standards in Europe and would contravene desired EU objectives.

To ban or not to ban? Obstacles and next steps.

Michael Gove pledged at the National Farmers Union Conference to back high tariffs on imported agricultural produce in the event of a no deal to  protect British Farmers from cheaper foreign imports. While this pledge will have pleased the NFU, in order to secure this, Michael Gove will now have to convince the Chancellor, who is reportedly reluctant to do so, concerned that increased food prices will impact negatively on consumers.

Additionally, Mr Gove has positioned himself cross purpose with the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, who dismissed concerns over chlorinated chicken, saying that it was safe to eat and that the British public would not accept produce from diluted animal welfare standards.

What could PRT mean for the UK?

If Liam Fox is correct, the product would cease to be imported due to lack of public demand. However, although Britons may be resistant to the idea of PRT poultry, this polling fails to capture how these attitudes may change when faced by potential increased financial pressures.

If attitudes towards PRT did change, and UK poultry did not decrease their production standards, British produce would occupy a more expensive, but reduced share of the market. Although there may well be consumer demand for this, forcing the products to compete in a crowded field would cause many British farmers to suffer, and there would be an increased financial pressure to shift to a more intensive modes of farming and decrease current production standards to maintain competitiveness.

Historically, EU directives have stood in the way of this, but in the event of a no deal, the Secretary of State will have carte blanche to revoke any statutory standard in place, that could cause a seismic and rapid change in the UK food sector, and the mainstreaming of these American processes. Both in the event of a no deal or simply leaving the European Union, this is a topic that stakeholders and parliamentarians will have to tackle head on.

 

Alex Tiley is a political Consultant for Dods Monitoring specialising in agriculture and environmental policy. If your organisation needs to keep abreast of political and policy developments, Dods Monitoring can offer intelligence to keep you one step ahead. Find out more here.