EU Referendum

Brexit: Trojan chickens


A EU senior official, we are told says that Brussels has been "surprised by the lack of knowledge shown by senior British politicians in their approach to the negotiations".

There is no evidence offered to support the assertion that British politician do suffer from a lack of knowledge, although we have seen that for ourselves, so could hardly disagree with it. Whether or not, though, there should be surprise in Brussels is another matter. Ignorance amongst British politicians about matters EU is a long-standing phenomenon, and there was never any good reason to believe that Brexit negotiations would bring them any special improvement.

And nor should the comment be confined to British politicians, senior or otherwise. We have seen remarkable levels of ignorance amongst the civil servants who advise them, in the academic community, within lawyers, individually and collectively, in business and their trade bodies and, especially, throughout the legacy media, which seems to make its speciality the cultivation and the spread of ignorance.

However, the particular context of the EU official's comments has been the sudden interest in chlorinated chickens, and it is instructive to watch the usual suspects dive into the debate, unwittingly parading their ignorance for all to see.

The prevailing meme seems to be that a protectionist EU is objecting to the use of chorine washes in poultry slaughterhouses because of the chemical residues. And because they lack specific evidence that the residues are harmful, the EU is said to be invoking the "precautionary principle".

In fact, while the precautionary principle was only adopted by the Commission for food safety matters in February 2000, the dispute on this issue goes back to 1997 and before that to the 1993 WTO Agreements in the agriculture sector.

Then, and since – as discussed in this FAO paper - the concern has been that "pathogen reduction treatments" (PRTs) would mask poor hygiene practices. Even a US commentator agrees that it was for this reason the EU generally opposed such chemical interventions. It believed that stronger hygiene practices during production and processing were more appropriate for pathogen control than what it viewed as US overreliance on PRTs.

In fact, it is fair to say that the US partially conceded the point in 1995, making a "strong commitment" to safer meat and poultry by launching a "fundamental shift" in control techniques. For the first time, targets would be set for reducing the incidence of contamination of raw meat and poultry products with harmful bacteria.

Despite that, EU member states have maintained their opposition. A ban on PRTs took effect in 1997, leading in 2009 to the US invoking the WTO dispute procedure. That has not been progressed and, eight years later has remained unresolved through multiple TTIP rounds.

Technically, the issue is far from straightforward. In theory, use of disinfectants improve end-product microbiology, but there is remarkably little actual data on real-life scenarios, against good evidence that chemicals are easily neutralised by high organic loads.

In terms of the end result, there is not much to commend the system. And, although the National Chicken Council points to a lack of correlation between disease incidence and the level of isolates in raw poultry meat, there are significant differences between the US and the EU, where prevalence of the main pathogenic species vary widely among the Member States, from zero to 26.6 percent, significantly lower in some Members States despite the prohibition on PRTs.

Given that, the use of PRTs end up representing divergences in regulatory philosophy, with no clear evidence to support either. The Europeans prefer a farm-to-fork solution, looking to minimise contamination across the entire food chain, from animal feed to final retail standards, against reliance on what many believe is a fragile technical fix at one point in the food chain.

With decades of experience as a food safety practitioner and a PhD on the epidemiology of salmonellosis, I have worked in the meat and poultry industries as a technical adviser, and been in and out of farms, slaughterhouses and processing plants up and down the country.

Yet, I'm personally not prepared to pronounce on the relative merits of either approach. Thus, we need to leave it to the Adam Smith Institute and Jacob Rees-Mogg. With them and Daniel Hannan, and all those free-market Brexiteers around, who actually needs experts?

That said, there is – of course – more to this issue than food safety. US growers have substantial production advantages. Even after transport, it could undercut the UK industry, which does not benefit from any direct subsidies. Poultrymeat costs in the American system are about 75 percent of EU average costs. With added-value, processed products, the differences can be even greater.  

On top of all that, as long as the UK is accepting US produce, the EU is going to be very suspicious of our food exports. We can expect border checks to intensify, with costs and delays multiplying as a result. On top of all the other problems we might have, export to the EU will become very difficult indeed.

There is thus a very simple equation here. If we want a trade deal that opens our market to the US, we can kiss goodbye to our poultry industry. The same goes for the egg industry, red meat and dairy products. Fruit and some vegetable growers would also be hit. And we also lose much of our export trade.

But it doesn't stop there. Not only do the ancillary, supporting industries go, the feed industry is badly damaged. Only about a third of the 15 million ton annual wheat harvest is used for milling (bread and biscuit-making). The bulk of the rest is soft wheat, sold for animal feed. There are few alternative uses, if you take away this arable production, you've made a sizeable dent in UK farming. In short, a US trade deal which opened up our industry to transatlantic competition would mean the end of UK farming as we know it.

Farming itself produces more than food. A major externality is scenery, which underpins rural tourism, itself a major industry in its own right. There is the ecosystem supported by farming and much of the rural economy. The damage would be incalculable.

Rightly or wrongly, therefore, chlorinated chickens have become the touchstone for Brexit, not so much a Trojan horse as Trojan chickens. Give the "Ultras" their victory and there won't be a United Kingdom worth having.