When the United Kingdom formally started proceedings to leave the European Union two years ago, its international trade secretary, Liam Fox, promised the UK would have 40 trade deals with nations in place by the time it exited the bloc. With just two weeks until Brexit, however, only seven countries have agreed to roll over trade deals with the UK. This is out of the 69 countries from which the kingdom presently benefits under EU membership.
The United States alone is set to ensure £12.8 billion worth of trade with Britain post-Brexit. But there are concerns surrounding the deal, particularly over the US employing lower food safety standards than the UK must uphold within the EU.
According to the Office of the United States Trade Representative, the US after Brexit is “seeking comprehensive market access for US agricultural goods in the UK.” This would include scrapping regulations or tariff and non-tariff trade barriers as well as removing “expeditiously unwarranted barriers that block the export of US food and agricultural products.”
But how does the standard of US industrial goods compare with what the UK is used to?
Irrespective of Brexit or the UK’s market access to US food products, US goods are widely considered by experts to compare unsatisfactorily with EU goods, especially when it comes to poultry and beef products.
Chlorination, also referred to as Pathogen Reduction Treatments (PRTs), is used in the US to rid poultry of foreign bodies and bacteria. Regulators and farmers insist the process is safe.
A report from the Adam Smith Institute, a British free-market think tank, found that the procedure minimizes salmonella contamination to 2% from 14% of chickens sampled, compared with around 15-20% of sampled EU chickens.
While the US insists its chlorinated rinses on chicken meat are necessary, the EU says they would not be needed but for poor hygiene along the production line.
With a US free-for-all outlook over a trade deal with the UK post-Brexit, the UK could also be forced to allow in hormone and antibiotics-injected US beef. The controversial procedure, which is approved by the US Food and Drug administration, is supposed to make the animals grow faster and bigger, with a correspondingly low calorie intake. This leaves residues of the injected hormones in the meat which, if consumed, poses a risk to male reproductive health, while antibiotics disrupt intestinal bacteria, according to data collated by scientists at University of Rochester.
For a similar outcome, pigs get injected with ractopamine, a feed additive banned in most countries, to allow for bigger production and more lean muscle fibres in pork meat. A European Food Safety Authority panel concluded the additive causes adverse effects on cardiovascular and circulatory performance in consumers.
Another potential concern are US eggs that need to be washed after laying and before they reach the shelves, including grade-A eggs. This is not the case in the EU where eggs are delivered to markets without any prior washing.
Potassium bromate and azodicarbonamide are also both used in baked goods in the US and have both been found to have carcinogenic effects
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, warm-water washing with detergents is meant to prevent cross-contamination of dirt or microbes on the eggshell. The EU grading manual on the other hand stipulates that an egg’s shell protects the inside from pollution or exposure to germs such as salmonella. It also highlights that the method used in the US can compromise an egg’s cuticle, a protective thin layer on the shell, making it more prone to contamination.
Keeping eggs refrigerated – standard practice in the US – can cause water to condense outside the shell making it the perfect surface for bacteria to grow on. The EU currently recommends keeping eggs at a consistent, cool temperature.
Despite approving genetically-modified maize, the EU does not approve of GMOs or administering herbicides, which are more widespread in the US, due to the grave health concerns surrounding the controversial techniques.
Potassium bromate and azodicarbonamide are also both used in baked goods in the US and have both been found to have carcinogenic effects, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the European Food Safety Authority, respectively.
The Soil Association, the Trade Democracy Coalition and concerned farmers have all agreed on the need for a set of standards by which the US can abide. They have also demanded a vote on any trade deal taking place between the two countries following Brexit, though this seems highly unlikely.
Farmers and environmentalists are also apprehensive that a US-UK deal after Brexit with low monitoring and enforcement standards will open the door for similar ones with other countries. Additionally, farmers are dreading any change in prices as a result of an influx of cheap US food products.
The Soil Association has also warned against limited access to the EU market if the UK lowers its food standards. Environmentalists fear that by withdrawing from the EU, the UK is jeopardizing its environmental framework set by the EU, and might be tempted to prioritize trade deals with low-standard nations over a robust food safety framework.