Trade Secretary Liam Fox is in the US today promoting a new post-Brexit UK-US free trade deal. Such a deal could not only provide a significant boost to the UK economy but also send a strong political message about the viability of Brexit Britain. However, the visit has been over-shadowed by an escalating row over whether as part of such an FTA would entail the UK having to accept US chlorine-rinsed chicken, with the media reporting that the Cabinet is split over the issue.
Although the UK and US are not yet at the stage of beginning formal negotiations, it is worth exploring this issue in greater detail because it will only get more prominent in future and because it perfectly cuts across many of the wider Brexit dilemmas facing the UK.
The government has several key objectives as regards Brexit:
Maintain a high degree of access to the Single Market,
Strike comprehensive and ambitious FTAs with other global economies,
Reduce the regulatory burden imposed by EU-derived laws on UK business,
Maintain public support for its policies.
When it comes to food and agriculture, there are a couple of specific sub-goals:
Preserving and enhancing UK environmental and food standards (Gove’s ‘Green Brexit’),
Continuing to support UK agriculture (by preserving some elements of the EU’s CAP),
Cheaper food and greater choice (via new FTAs).
The question of food standards will be a key battleground when it comes to FTAs – the US is likely to insist that we allow not only chlorine-rinsed chicken but also other products such as hormone bolstered beef access to our market, which the EU has banned (this is one of several issues which hobbled the EU-US TTIP talks).
The Adam Smith Institute has published a good paper on why the UK ought to accept chlorine-rinsed which argues that a) the process is completely safe, b) it would lead to reduced prices as US chicken is 21% cheaper than UK chicken, and c) it would help us unlock access to US market in other sectors.
Compelling as these arguments are, they do not take account of the British public’s strong views on animal welfare – the underlying reason why the US rinses chickens in chlorine is because of poor health and hygiene standards beforehand. Even if scientists are able certify the process as safe, scientific fact is only one of several factors in the field of public policy making; ethics and values also play a prominent role. By the same token, it could be argued that eating horse meat or eggs from caged hens are perfectly safe, but consumer views and values have evolved on these points. (It is also worth remembering animal welfare issues – namely fox hunting and ivory trading – were identified as having contributed to the loss of support for the Tories during the election campaign).
As such, even if the produce is to be clearly labelled to allow consumers to make informed decisions, the public may still be unhappy the UK is facilitating this practice. Secondly, cheaper imports will likely put pressure on UK producers to either cut costs by adopting US methods, or face losing market share leading to a backlash from the politically potent farming lobby – the British Poultry Council has already issued a statement rejecting the idea of importing US chlorine-rinsed chicken, warning that “any compromise on standards will not be tolerated”.
In turn, if the UK were to lower its own standards, it would face new barriers in terms of the EU market which for the foreseeable future will remain our largest single trading partner. Interestingly, opponents of opening the UK to US chlorine-washed chicken include DEFRA Secretary Michael Gove and his predecessor Andrea Leadsom, thereby demonstrating this issue cut across the Remain/Leave divide.
The tricky trade-off outlined above also applies to other economic sectors. When it comes to chemicals for example can we dump the EU’s onerous REACH rules while also maintaining market access for our exports to the EU? When it comes to financial services, can we agree a bespoke enhanced equivalence regime with the EU – dependent on maintaining a high degree of regulatory convergence – while also securing passporting rights to the US market?
In other words, we are unlikely to be able to have our chicken and eat it (to coin a phrase).