The US ambassador to Britain has stepped into the future of the UK’s trade talks with Washington by saying not only should chlorine-washed chicken be allowed in the UK, it should be embraced by the nation’s farmers.
The government has repeatedly vowed not to allow the cheap poultry products washed in chemicals to enter the market in the event of a US trade deal – with environment secretary Theresa Villiers saying the nation “will not be importing chlorinated chicken” earlier this month.
However, figures on the other side of the Atlantic have continued to argue the meat should be welcomed into Britain – with US ambassador Woody Johnson the latest to make the case in a letter published by the Sunday Times.
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“These products should absolutely be included in a US-UK free trade agreement that will create new markets for farmers from both countries and offer more choices to British and American consumers.” he said, adding that perhaps the UK’s food standards agency should “recommend” chlorine washing poultry.
He went on to say official data from the US and the UK, which appears to present a higher rate of food-based disease and death in the US, was like “comparing apples with oranges”.
Figures from the US centre for disease control and the Department of Agriculture, which both work with estimated data, put the number of deaths from salmonella and campylobacter every year at roughly 420 and 124 respectively.
However, the data has proven difficult to compare to the UK’s statistics, which rely on confirmed deaths. In 2015 and 2016 there were no fatalities as a result of salmonella in the country, and only one death related to campylobacter from 2015 to 2017.
The closest direct comparison, a 2015 World Health Organisation study, put the rate of foodborne illness in North America at a marginally lower rate – 35 in every 100,000 – than in parts of Europe, where illness was estimated to have affected 41 in every 100,000.
But the research – cited by the US ambassador as proof of America’s advanced food standards – compares his country, Canada and Cuba to a range of EU and non-EU countries in the European area, including nations as disparate as the UK, Israel and Andorra, all with different food safety practices.
The ambassador added: “When it comes to antimicrobial washes, the European Food Safety Authority agrees they are the most effective and economical way to fight food-borne illness, campylobacter in particular. This is the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK and most Britons contract it from contaminated chicken.
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“In fact, your own Food Standards Agency has already approved antimicrobial washes to stop food poisoning in pre-washed salads sold across the UK. Perhaps it should recommend including chicken in this treatment.
“Millions of Britons visit America every year and I would wager most eat chicken while there. Ask them and I am sure they will tell you that American agricultural products are safe, nutritious and delicious”.
His intervention comes after broad push-back from industry bodies – including the National Farmers Union – worried that chemically cleaning meat could be used to help cover up bad farming practices while undercutting agricultural workers in the UK.
In a 2017 report from the House of Lords, peers warned that “the greatest threat” to welfare standards in Britain would be “UK farmers competing against cheap, imported food from countries that produce to lower standards than the UK” – adding that the nation’s farmers could be forced to either lose their livelihoods or cut corners to meet demand.