‘A bigger deal than chlorinated chicken’: experts warn of post-Brexit attack on UK food standards
Trump's trade ambassador signals there will be no trade deal without a major shift in the UK's approach to standards that will affect products from animal antibiotics to pesticides
When it comes to organophosphate use, context is everything. Spray chlorpyrifos on a soy field: you’re using an insecticide. Spray sarin – its close chemical relative – onto a battlefield: you’re wielding a chemical weapon.
But the effects on the human body, whether inhaled, ingested, or absorbed, are broadly similar – organophosphates are acutely toxic to the nervous system. They cause loss of bladder and bowel control, uncontrollable shaking, drooling, paralysis, respiratory arrest and, at high enough doses, death. Even so, these chemicals are still used widely in the developing world – where they are responsible for an estimated 200,000 deaths each year – and in the US.
The EU has been steadily prohibiting use of most – although not all – of these compounds over the past twenty years. Most recently, chlorpyrifos and chlorpyrifos-methyl were banned for possibly causing developmental problems in children.
That “possibly” is key. The EU adheres to the precautionary principle, where products generally are not allowed unless they are proven to be safe. If there is doubt around a product’s safety, it can be removed from use with relatively little redress from manufacturers.
The US is vehemently opposed to this approach, instead pushing its trading partners to adopt “science-based regulation” – a lofty-sounding term that actually refers to a corporate-friendly approach in which regulators must prove beyond doubt that products are harmful before barring them.
This effectively prevents trading partners from barring products based on consumer preference, animal welfare or environmental concerns. Even where products are proven to be harmful, regulators must show that this risk can’t be managed just by lowering the recommended dose.
In little-noticed remarks last month, President Trump’s chief trade negotiator laid bare the extent to which the US will be pushing for this “science-based” approach when he said he would reject any UK-US deal that threatened to exclude American food products carrying trace residues of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals.
This would mean British consumers, stripped of protections afforded by EU regulations, could be exposed to potentially dangerous chemicals used in US agriculture.
That’s everything from chlorinated chicken and banned pesticides, to pork treated with a potentially carcinogenic antibiotic. Meanwhile, a flood of cheap meat from the US could leave British farmers struggling to compete.
Standards as ‘plain protectionism’
In testimony to the Senate finance committee in June, US trade representative Robert Lighthizer derided Europe’s exacting standards on residues of agricultural chemicals and pesticides as “plain protectionism”, adding that he would not allow similar standards into future trade deals.
Sharon Treat, senior attorney at the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, said she found Lighthizer’s comments “fairly shocking”, adding: “There’s a real effort to put into trade deals… language that makes it difficult to set a residue level that prohibits certain foods.”
US standards are based on biased selections of parts of the available scientific evidence
Lighthizer’s remarks hint at the gulf between the relatively high food safety standards Britain has thus far adhered to as part of the EU, and the American standards which we may be forced to accept as part of a post-Brexit trade deal.
Agricultural standards are a key sticking point in the negotiations over a US-UK trade deal, which resumed this week.
“The European Union has raised this practice of using [food] standards really as protectionism to a high art,” Lighthizer told the Senate committee. “We have to insist on science-based standards, for our farmers… and to the extent people deny us access, we shouldn’t give them a trade agreement.”
But critics say that the phrase “science-based” is grossly misleading.
Erik Millstone, a food safety policy expert at Sussex University, told Unearthed: “US standards are based on biased selections of parts of the available scientific evidence that point towards the administration’s preferred policy conclusion. It is not evidence-based policy-making, it is policy-based evidence selection.”
People in the UK have recoiled at the prospect of some of the more viscerally offputting US products that are currently banned in the EU. Earlier this month leading UK supermarkets pledged to never sell chlorine-washed chicken or hormone-injected beef from the US – although they could still be used in catering for schools, hospitals, restaurants and cafes.
But British consumers could also be exposed to other, potentially more serious chemicals, if the US is successful in ensuring American farmers benefit from a trade deal.
Potentially carcinogenic pig drugs
One such substance is carbadox, an antibiotic used in pig-farming that has been banned in the EU since 1998.
An estimated 50% of pigs in the US are treated with carbadox, which is sold under the brand name Mecadox, and can treat swine dysentery but is also widely used to boost the weight of pigs. It is the second most widely used antibiotic used in US pig farming, a 2017 USDA study found.
Unlike many other antibiotics, it has no medical use for humans and so can be used without veterinary approval. But it has been found to leave potentially carcinogenic residues in the animals’ livers, which are used in processed pork products such as sausages and lunch meats.
It’s all about shaving off small amounts of money from the cost of a pig
The international food standards code the Codex Alimentarius found that there is “no safe level” for human consumption of carbadox residues. In 2016 the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) moved to ban the drug, but the process has been delayed as the agency negotiated with and reviewed evidence provided by Phibro Animal Health, which makes Mecadox.
Phibro insists that Mecadox is safe if its instructions are followed and no doses are given to pigs in the six weeks before their slaughter.
In a fact sheet published last year, the FDA wrote: “To date, after requests for additional information from CVM [the agency’s Center for Veterinary Medicine], Phibro has not submitted information demonstrating that there is a safe way to use carbadox.” The CVM is currently finishing its review of Phibro’s evidence, it informed the regulator in April.
“It’s disturbing. Why would you intentionally introduce a known carcinogen into the food supply?” said Steve Roach, food safety programme director at the Food Animals Concern Trust, a US-based organisation. “Generally you can get the same growth-promoting benefits if you manage the hygiene better.”
Mecadox is widely used for intensive farming, where piglets are often weaned at three weeks old and housed in close quarters.
Like ractopamine, another controversial drug used to promote growth in American pigs but widely banned elsewhere due to safety worries, carbadox means bigger pigs and bigger margins.
“It’s all about shaving off small amounts of money from the cost of a pig,” Roach said. “It allows you to wean early and have hogs in less than perfect conditions.”
Millstone said that the poor hygiene and overcrowded conditions of intensive US pig farming meant messy infections like dysentery spread through pig sheds rapidly.
“The stocking densities are much higher, and hygiene standards are much lower, and therefore the chances of the livestock getting ill and the chances of them and their meat getting infected is much higher than in Europe,” he said.
‘A bigger deal than chlorinated chicken’
The scale of antibiotic use in US farming is a significant food safety issue, said Lance Price, director of George Washington University’s Antibiotic Resistance Action Center. He told Unearthed British consumers should be concerned about the potential for carbadox-reared pork to enter their supermarkets.
Only a small proportion of US meat is tested for residues, Price said: “I don’t have much faith in our ability to detect carbadox traces in meat. And I certainly don’t have any faith that it would result in a recall before something could be sold and exported.”
The use of animal antibiotics such as carbadox increases the potential for bacteria to develop resistance to antibiotics that humans need, Price added, by triggering a stress response in bacteria in the pigs’ gut which facilitates the movement of antibiotic-resistant genes from one bacterium to another.
“When you go to slaughter those animals, those drug-resistant bacteria inevitably contaminate some of the meat. And those get packaged up and shipped into our grocery stores. So we are routinely bringing drug-resistant bacteria into our house.”
“It’s a bigger deal than chlorinated chicken,” he said. “If I was a European consumer, I would want any American chicken to be cleaned with chlorine because I know that there’s drug-resistant bacteria in those animals.”
In the US, there have been multiple outbreaks of drug-resistant foodborne pathogens like salmonella or Campylobacter, as well as clear evidence of urinary tract infections caused by drug-resistant E. coli from poultry products. The CDC estimates that more than 2.8 million antibiotic-resistant infections occur in the U.S. each year, and more than 35,000 people die as a result.
Larry Miller, Phibro Animal Health’s chief operating officer, told the Mail on Sunday: “New studies leave no doubt about the safety of carbadox. Its benefits in preventing animal suffering and disease are well documented.”
“We believe allowing it to remain a treatment option is the reasonable course. We stand ready to work closely with the FDA and answer any questions.”
Phibro could not be reached for further comment regarding the possible role of carbadox in antibiotic resistance.
Highly hazardous pesticides
Similarly, the quantity and variety of pesticides used in American farming outstrips those currently used in the UK. Earlier this year the Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN) warned that the use of pesticides deemed “highly hazardous” is 1.5 times higher in the US than in the EU, and last month the Mail on Sunday highlighted 70 pesticides that are banned in the EU but used on US farms.
The EU’s precautionary principle has prohibited or minimised the use of many chemicals where links to human or environmental health hazards are strongly suggested, sometimes before conclusive research has been carried out.
This is particularly important with residues of chemicals like pesticides, where low but repeated exposure can cause serious damage over the long term.
PAN’s analysis showed that in the event of a UK-US deal, British shoppers could be exposed to grapes produced with 1,000 times the UK-permitted level of the insecticide propargite, and apples treated with 400 times the UK-permitted level of malathion. Both chemicals have been linked to cancer and other serious health impacts.
Residues of still more chemicals which are banned in the EU entirely could arrive on US products. American apples may still legally carry residues of chlorpyrifos, the neurotoxic organophosphate which is linked to impaired cognitive development of foetuses and young children. American oranges, almonds, mangoes, corn – all may carry residues of known carcinogens and suspected endocrine disruptors that are currently prohibited in the UK.
Lighthizer was lobbied extensively on pesticides and chemical standards by US agricultural interests when he was formulating the US’ negotiating objectives. Trade bodies ranging from potato to pistachio farmers wrote to him attacking the EU’s Maximum Residue Levels (MRL), which govern permissible levels of pesticides, animal antibiotics and other chemicals, and called for them to be replaced with “science-based” measures in a US-UK deal.
The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), a British libertarian think tank, used Washington hearings on the US negotiating goals to attack the precautionary principle. Peter Allgeier, a former US trade official who represented the IEA at the hearings, said: “rigid, prescriptive EU standards have stifled innovation, and impeded US exports. The so-called precautionary principle in European regulatory rules in particular has been a problem.” The Brexit vote, according to Allgeier, offered the opportunity to overturn the principle.
British farmers at a disadvantage
A flood of cheap American imports on the British market could make it difficult for UK farmers, producing goods to more stringent welfare and health standards, to compete, said Sharon Treat, of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.
“As long as you’re required to accept this more cheaply produced food from the US it will put tremendous pressure on domestic producers to meet the same price point and that will be difficult to do if they are trying to meet the tougher standards,” she said.
This month trade secretary Liz Truss announced that she will set up a trade and agricultural commission “to ensure UK farmers do not face unfair competition and that their high animal welfare and production standards are not undermined”.
If the ideologues triumph… they will pay a very high political price for doing so
National Farmers’ Union (NFU) president Minette Batters called the commission “a hugely important development,” but cautioned that negotiators must be prepared to walk away from a deal that would result in unfair competition for UK farmers.
“We produce to some of the highest standards in the world, our unique selling point as we open up markets overseas. But it mustn’t become our Achilles heel by forcing farmers to compete with producers who aren’t required to shoulder the same cost burdens,“ Batters said.
A spokesperson for the Department for International Trade said: “We are focused on getting a deal that works in the best interests of the UK, and this government has been consistently clear it will not sign a trade deal that will compromise our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food safety standards.
“Our food regulators continue to provide independent advice to make sure all food imports comply with our high standards. Decisions on these standards are separate from any trade agreements.”
But Lighthizer’s comments highlight the tough stance the US is prepared to take. He also underlined the importance of opening up UK markets to US poultry farmers, including for what he referred to as “so-called chlorinated chicken”. This position enjoys cross-party support in the Senate, suggesting the US stance might not change dramatically if Biden wins the election in November.
“I’ve made it clear that I’m not going to bring back an agreement to the United States that excludes our agricultural products on a non-scientific basis,” Lighthizer said. Poultry would be a “cutting-edge issue” in the negotiations, he added.
Millstone said the precautionary principle was not intended to protect EU producers from competition from US producers, but to protect European consumers, farm workers, and flora and fauna from the adverse effects of toxic products.
“That is an entirely lawful and legitimate policy goal,” he said. “It is entirely reasonable to set maximum residue levels for some compounds at the level of detectability, if those compounds for example cause cancer or adverse reproductive effects.”
Millstone cautioned that while the British government has spoken broadly about maintaining standards of animal welfare and environmental protection, little has been said about food safety.
But he still hopes the fears of British farmers and consumers – more than a million of whom have signed an NFU petition demanding food standards be maintained – might yet rein in the deregulatory enthusiasm of the government’s free marketeers.
“I’m not saying that the ideologues will not triumph over the pragmatists,” he said. “But if the ideologues triumph, and the UK government sells its consumers and farmers down the river in order to get on the right side of Uncle Sam, they will pay a very high political price for doing so.”