Liam Fox has defended the controversial practice of disinfecting chicken with chlorine, reopening a cabinet rift over whether post-Brexit food standards should be lowered to facilitate a trade deal with the US.
“There are no health reasons why you couldn’t eat chickens that have been washed in chlorinated water,” the trade secretary told MPs when asked if there was anything wrong with the process. “Most of the salads in our supermarkets are rinsed in chlorinated water,” he said.
Fox’s comments, at his first appearance before the House of Commons trade committee since February, come despite more recent assurances from the food and environment secretary, Michael Gove, that there were no circumstances in which chlorinated chicken would be allowed in the UK after Britain leaves the EU.
“All members of the government are agreed that we are not going to dilute our high animal welfare standards or our high environmental standards in pursuit of any trade deal,” Gove said in July.
US poultry is often washed with a strong chlorine solution to kill bacteria such as salmonella and campylobacter, which can contaminate meat during slaughter and processing.
The practice has been banned in the EU, which believes it encourages farmers to relax overall hygiene standards and pursue industrial rearing practices such as battery farms that are bad for animal welfare.
Experts believe that chlorine should not be toxic to humans at the levels typically used in the washing process, but it can cause carcinogens such as semicarbazide and trihalomethanes to form if the concentrations are high enough.
“Washing the chickens in a strong chlorine solution [20-50 parts per million of chlorine] provides a brash, cost-effective method of killing any microorganisms on the surface of the bird,” said Simon Dawson, a lecturer in food safety at Cardiff Metropolitan University.
“Some US abattoirs and processing plants rely heavily on chlorination because their other hygiene standards are so poor that they would be illegal in Europe.”
US agricultural lobbyists are likely to play a key role in future trade talks with the UK, as they seek ways to expand export markets by harmonising food standards.
Fox pointed out that the US had “much lower levels of campylobacter in food than parts of Europe” as a result of its approach, but did not mention animal welfare concerns.
“I have no objection to the British public being sold something that is safe as long as they know what they are eating,” the trade secretary told the committee. “I am a great believer in giving the public a choice over what they are eating so long as the scientists tell us it is safe.”
The Department for International Trade also used the hearing to pour cold water on recent suggestions that it was preparing to lower its ambitions for a deal with the US in the face of consumer concern.
Crawford Falconer, a New Zealander now working as Britain’s chief trade negotiation adviser, said a comprehensive US trade deal remained the department\s top priority.
“As far as the content is concerned the more the better, so in general terms it will cover all goods and services,” she told MPs. “There is no reason in areas like food and beverage … we cannot have a mutually beneficial arrangement with the US.”
Fox conceded there would need to be more public consultation on questions such as chlorinated chicken before negotiations with the US began in earnest.
“I think that UK consumers will have a strong view on all future trade agreements,” he said. “We need to understand the parameters of where the public are before we get into a negotiation … it would seem to me a waste of time and effort to agree things we couldn’t sell to parliament or public.”
Commenting afterwards, the Labour committee member Chris Leslie MP accused Fox of being “disgracefully complacent about the prospect of a deal with the US leading to a flood of chlorinated chicken invading our supermarkets”.
This article was written by Dan Roberts Brexit policy editor, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 1st November 2017 14.39 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010