Nothing symbolises British fears of a standard-slashing US trade deal better than chlorinated chickens: those zombie birds, barely able to move, cluck or feed, stuffed with chemicals that force them to grow to unbelievable sizes, sitting in their own waste, covered in sores rather than feathers. At the end of their miserable life of confinement, they are washed in chlorine or a similar chemical to get rid of the bacteria that infect them.
In fact, the wash is believed to hide rather than eliminate some bacteria, potentially driving much higher rates of food poisoning in the US, not to mention the appallingly treated workers in the industry who suffer “rashes, burns, destruction of the eye tissue, difficulty breathing, and inflammation of the respiratory system” as a result of exposure.
But chicken is only the tip of the iceberg. Despite government claims, here are five other unpleasant foods that could make their way to our menus as part of a UK-US trade deal.
Much US meat is produced on an industrial scale, with conditions as bad as those in the chicken sheds. In particular, hormones, steroids and antibiotics are regularly used to make animals bigger and faster, and to prevent them getting ill in the unnaturally close conditions in which they are kept. Many cows and pigs never see sunlight, walk freely or eat grass. Many of the chemicals used are bad for us too – antibiotic overuse is threatening to make these vital drugs useless, and to bring down a pillar of modern medicine. Another chemical, ractopamine, is regularly fed to industrially farmed pigs in the US, despite making the animals collapse, turn aggressive, suffer liver and kidney dysfunction, and even die. But it probably affects humans too, which is why not just the EU but also Russia and China have banned this dangerous chemical, as well as US pork that contains it.
The majority of US processed foods contain genetically modified ingredients, unlike British food. The US is demanding a “science-based” approach to food. This sounds good, but in trade deals “science-based” is a shorthand for more genetically modified food and more intensive chemical use. It contrasts with the EU’s precautionary principle, which takes a cautious approach to health risks and bans foods where there’s a credible risk to health. In the US, the balance of proof works the other way, and there is a high barrier that has to be passed before “harm” translates into regulation. Lead paint, banned in most of Europe before the second world war, was not prohibited in the US until 1978. Boris Johnson and his lead negotiator to the EU have talked about the need for the UK’s approach to food standards to be “governed by science”. GM is coming this way.
More pus, more pesticides
US rules allow milk to have nearly double the level of somatic cells – white blood cells that fight bacterial infection – that the UK allows. In practice, this means more pus in our milk, and more infections going untreated in cows. Much US milk would be deemed unfit for human consumption in Britain. Vegans don’t escape unscathed, because the US allows far more pesticide residue on fruit and vegetables, and allows 72 chemicals banned in the EU, including some responsible for serious harm. That’s before we get to the truly horrific – the rat hair, insect fragments and excrement traces that the US allows in small amounts in food.
Unsafe baby food
Even baby food carries higher risks in the US. In Britain, baby food has special standards including a complete ban on artificial colours and E-numbers, very low maximum levels of pesticides and limits on added sugar. The US has no specific regulations for baby food. A recent test of baby foods in the US found that 95% contained toxic metals, with 73% containing traces of arsenic. While the amounts may be small, the lack of tight regulation on US baby foods, and the certainty that sugar is often added to toddler snack food, should cause deep disquiet.
All-American Stilton cheese and Cornish pasties
Britain currently protects certain foods to ensure they’re made to specific standards and to promote local farming and industry. Think Cornish pasties, Melton Mowbray pork pies, Scottish wild salmon and Stilton blue cheese. In trade talks to date, the US has “pressed the UK to move away from current EU approach on generic terms”. American companies would be able to produce Cornish pasties on a massive scale and sell them back to us. The US also wants to “eliminate … unjustified labelling” saying it unfairly discriminates against American foods and, incredibly, the administration “view[s] the introduction of warning labels as harmful rather than as a step to public health”.
These are not marginal concerns for the US – food is not an aspect of a future deal that Britain will be able to simply opt out of. It is central to US objectives that call for “greater regulatory compatibility to reduce burdens associated with unnecessary differences in regulations and standards” including “a mechanism to remove expeditiously unwarranted barriers that block the export of US food and agricultural products”. The US trade deal is a threat to our food standards and our farmers, and the US will not sign a deal that doesn’t have food standards in it.
• Nick Dearden is director of Global Justice Now