Playing Chicken with Food Safety

The news last week was awash with chlorine-soaked worry about potential changes to UK food safety standards. This particular story comes from fears that the UK may need to revise its laws and regulations in order to gain trade deals with non-EU countries after Brexit – in this case chicken from the United States that is washed with water treated with chlorine, a technique currently not permitted under EU regulations. While Environment Secretary Michael Gove has since insisted that the UK will not lower its food safety standards for the sake of trade (disagreeing with International Trade Secretary Liam Fox), the underlying issue of differing regulations and their impact on trade is unlikely to disappear.

Acknowledging my ignorance of food legislation, I sought out Dr David Jukes, Associate Professor in Food and Nutritional Sciences at the University of Reading, and one of the foremost experts in food legislation, to get his thoughts on this topic. David is running several modules on food law for the AFTP this academic year, so seemed like the perfect person to guide my first steps in this area.

David explained to me that in one respect the issue is simple: countries implement regulations regarding the treatment, processing, packaging (and so on) of food products. If country A uses techniques that are not permitted by country B, the relevant products from A cannot be exported to B. Straightforward enough, but the looming changes to the UK’s place in the EU highlights a problem: if the UK then wishes to enter into new trade agreements that include agriculture, disparities in food regulations will become a point of contention. While the UK may be able to stand firm when dealing with some countries, economically-powerful nations such as the United States present a very different problem and, as a result, regulations may need to change to accommodate the more powerful partner.

The economic ramifications are significant: washing chicken in chlorine treated water leads to cost savings (American chicken is reportedly 20 -30% cheaper than that produced in the UK). In this case British producers could be put under threat if the changes result in a large amount of imported American chicken reaching the UK market. Or, if British producers are allowed to adopt similar approaches, our ability to trade with the tightly-regulated countries of the EU could be curtailed. In that situation, UK producers would be trapped between the choice to change their methods to compete with cheaper imports or maintain higher standards to maintain exports to the EU.

These different approaches (EU vs US) are not simply a disagreement about narrow technicalities when it comes to the safety of certain food products. Both are guided by the latest scientific evidence, but the EU also takes a range of other topics into consideration, including ethical questions such as animal welfare. One relevant example is genetically-modified food, which the US has enthusiastically adopted while the EU has taken a far more cautious approach, reflecting the variety of opinions among its member states and its incorporation of the precautionary principle into its decisions. Leaving the EU could allow the UK to loosen its regulations on GM foods, offering new areas for development as well as trade deals. But once again, the question of upsetting existing trade appears. Are the advantages of loosening existing regulations enough to outweigh the potentially-huge ramifications on our trade with the EU?

One of the things David stressed was the inability to please everyone. We could maintain all of the existing EU regulations, which would facilitate continuing trade with the EU while potentially limiting trade deals with other countries – but in that case, what would we have gained from ‘Brexit’? Conversely, we could change our regulations to suit new trading partners like the United States, but run the risk of damaging existing trade with the EU. Which is preferable depends on a large number of political and economic factors, none of which have easy solutions.

Though even a brief chat with David gave me enough material to write this blog many times over, this last point struck me repeatedly during our conversation. Food laws and regulations are not arcane technical questions, hermetically-sealed from all other considerations. They have a complex relationship with science, public health, economics, politics, and ethics (if one can picture the least-readable Venn diagram ever). As a consequence, our choices about how we handle that legislation moving forward are not easy decisions and will require very careful consideration about our attitude to regulation, and what compromises (if any) for the sake of trade will benefit UK producers, retailers, and consumers.

I wish I had space to include the many other things David mentioned, including the role of the consumer (and consumer lobbies) in this area, and the role of international standards such as those of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, but I’m afraid I have to cut it short here. What I would say is that food law is certain to be of vital importance to everyone involved in the food supply chain, whether presenting arguments to governments, creating regulations, or coping with the impact of changes. The AFTP are lucky to have David running four modules this academic year: UK Food Law: The Basics, Understanding and Implementing EU Food Law, International Food Law: The Basics, and Risk Analysis in the Food Chain. I’d thoroughly recommend taking a look at these, and David’s website, because if one thing has become clear to me, it’s that this is a topic that will continue to ruffle feathers for many years to come. If the topic of poultry and food safety has piqued your interest, I’d also recommend taking a look at the AFTP courses in Poultry Meat Processing, Product Quality and Safety, and Poultry Health (delivered as an online or residential course), both of which cover the very latest developments in this area. 

Craig Farrell

University of Reading, August 2017

Our partners