Senior EU figures have have hit back at Liam Fox’s “ignorant and indigestible” claim that lowering UK food standards to allow the import of chlorinated chicken from the US is an insignificant detail.
The UK trade secretary is in the US, where Donald Trump on Tuesday tweeted:
Fox accused the media on Monday of being obsessed with concerns about chlorine-washed chicken being sold in Britain as part of a potential trade deal with the US after Brexit.
During his visit to Washington, he suggested it was a minor matter, which would be settled at the end of lengthy talks, adding that “Americans have been eating it perfectly safely for years”.
In Brussels, his comments were met with withering contempt from officials and politicians alike, who accused Fox of failing to understand the implications should the UK lower its standards compared with the EU, where chlorinated chicken is banned.
Gianni Pittella, leader of the socialist group in the European parliament, said: “I’m sure British citizens will be enthusiastic to go from the EU high standard control over chicken and food to the chlorinated, full of hormones, US chicken.
“It is just a further indigestible gift from Tories and their Brexit. Luckily for British citizens, UK won’t be allowed to strike new free trade agreements as long as the Brexit process has not reached a conclusion.”
Pittella added: “This news reinforces why the EU will eventually need to have checks and controls on goods coming from the UK. We won’t accept a race to the bottom on standards.”
A EU senior official said Brussels had been surprised by the lack of knowledge shown by senior British politicians in their approach to the negotiations.
He added that while the UK was likely to avoid tariffs on many goods under any free trade deal with the EU, the apparent openness of London to lower standards below those of the bloc would significantly hinder trade in the future.
“If we look at goods the most important thing about is not tariffs, it is all the rules around it,” the official said. “That is why we invented the single market which is about having one set of rules instead of 28 set of rules. Tariffs in a way are not that difficult. I think we will fund a way of avoiding tariffs in the future.
“When the stated aim is to make your own laws, not have the same controls, then we need to have checks. Then any good that travels from one market to another will have to undergo checks to see that it is legal to go on the market.”
The official added that the Republic of Ireland would in particular lament Fox’s comments, given the implications for talks on a future border with Northern Ireland. He also echoed the comments of the British poultry industry, which is concerned about being undercut in the UK by cheaper chlorinated-washed chicken.
The official said: “If the UK were successful in gaining a free trade agreement with America, and that is the only area where there is a comparative advantage for the UK, given agriculture is the EU’s main defensive interest, then there will be problems.
“It will eliminate sections of the agriculture industry in the UK but the British government seem to be happy with that. But it will also create particular problems with Northern Ireland.
“The Irish won’t be happy about chlorinated chicken crossing the border which is said to be northern Irish chicken. So there will have to be a border. It has been surprising to see how poor the understanding has been in the UK debate.”
The row came as the the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator, Guy Verhofstadt, ruled out any weakening on the EU’s demands on citizens’ rights after a briefing about last week’s Brexit negotiations from Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator. Verhofstadt also called on Britain to hurry up in providing an outline of its position the UK’s divorce bill.
He said: “The European parliament will remain vigilant regarding citizens’ rights and will continue to push for full rights for EU citizens in the UK as well as UK citizens in the EU.”
No 10 has repeatedly declined to answer questions about whether it could lift the ban on chlorine-washed chicken or guarantee there would be no reduction in food standards after Britain leaves the EU.
Theresa May’s spokesman has said that maintaining safety and public confidence in food was of the highest priority, but that it was too early to get into the specifics and “hypotheticals” of any deal.
Washing poultry in chlorine is banned in the EU, as it is claimed the practice could lead to worsening of food standards because unscrupulous producers may be tempted to use it to make meat appear fresher than it is.
This article was written by Daniel Boffey in Brussels, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 25th July 2017 13.48 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010