Food standards could be changed with minimal parliamentary scrutiny, according to officials and experts
The government’s food standards agency is readying itself for a “strong push” from other countries for the UK to allow chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-injected beef into the UK, documents show, despite repeated ministerial assurances that this will not happen. In response, ministers have been considering options which could allow the UK to change the rules to allow in the controversial products with little parliamentary scrutiny, according to experts who have seen the documents.
Yet last night MPs rejected a series of Lords’ amendments to the Agriculture Bill, which would have given UK standards legal status. The government argued that it was unnecessary to do so. The Bill will now return to the Lords. The briefings obtained by Unearthed under Freedom of Information laws show officials at the Food Standards Agency (FSA) describing how the current ban on beef reared using hormones or other growth promoters might be challenged through the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and the challenges the UK would face in upholding the ban. Officials also explored how ministers could change legislation to allow for chemical washing of chicken, if trading partners also challenge this ban under international rules. The controversial products have become totemic issues in the debate around a possible post-Brexit trade deal with the US. They reflect broader concerns around the very different food safety, environmental and animal welfare standards in the US, where industrial-scale factory farming makes liberal use of growth promoters, antibiotics, pesticides and chemical washes – often banned in the EU – to produce very cheap meat.
The Future British Standards Coalition – which represents public health practitioners, farming groups, caterers and food and animal welfare experts – has warned that a lowering of food standards would put pressure on low-income families and public sector caterers to provide less nutritious food. Chair Kath Dalmeny added that: “It is perfectly possible to have high standards at home and sign trade deals with new trading partners who meet them. It’s what consumers have repeatedly said they want, and would benefit rather than harm developing nations, with high standards opening up markets and improving conditions for their own producers and citizens.”
British ministers have repeatedly said that they will not allow chlorinated chicken into the UK, and more than a million people recently signed a petition by the National Farmers Union calling for food standards to be upheld. But US officials have made it clear that the ability to sell such products to the UK is a red-line issue for them.
On Monday, the government argued that ministers had already committed to maintaining any food standards in any post-Brexit trade agreements. And in July, trade minister Greg Hands assured parliament that there would be no weakening of the UK’s food standards after Brexit. This was a Conservative manifesto pledge, and the EU’s laws with their stringent food standards will be copied over onto the UK’s statute book, he said. “If anybody thought they would introduce any of these controversial products, Parliament would be able to block that,” he added. But the documents show that ministers could decide to allow chemical washes to be used on poultry, based on advice from official experts. They could then change the law using a statutory instrument, a manoeuvre where parliament is informed of the law change but has little power to examine, debate, amend or, in practice, block it. The last time Parliament blocked a statutory instrument was over 40 years ago.
For beef, the picture is less clear, but if a WTO challenge was successful, individual hormones or other growth promoters could be authorised by food safety or veterinary medicine authorities and signed off by ministers, meaning there would be no scope for parliamentary scrutiny.
One food safety expert described Hands’ statement to parliament as “either ignorant or dishonest”. Erik Millstone, professor of science policy at Sussex University, told Unearthed: “The statutory instruments give ministers the power to change food safety rules without parliament being able to debate or amend those policy changes.”His concerns have been echoed by the National Farmers’ Union. A spokesperson said: “Ministers have been clear that the bans on hormone-fed beef and chemical washes in poultry production will remain in place from January next year. However, it is also clear that these restrictions can be removed easily through secondary legislation, without Parliament debating or voting on the consequences of doing so. “The government must introduce a formal and comprehensive process that gives Parliament an explicit responsibility to debate and ratify the trade deals we negotiate, as well as any changes to legislation that affect our high food and farming standards.”
A government spokesperson told Unearthed: “This government has been clear it will not sign a trade deal that will compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards, and claims to the contrary are unhelpful scaremongering. We are a world leader in these areas and that will not change. “Chlorinated chicken and hormone injected beef are not permitted for import into the UK. This will be retained through the EU Withdrawal Act and enshrined in UK law at the end of the transition period. The government is focused on getting trade deals that protect and advance the interests of our farmers and consumers. If a deal isn’t the right one, we will walk away.”The Lords’ amendments sought to make the maintenance of British food standards a legal requirement in trade deals, limit the use of pesticides in public areas, and improve other environmental protections. All three were voted down. A further amendment to strengthen the powers of the new Trade and Agriculture Commission was ruled out by the deputy speaker.
Lord Randall of Uxbridge, a Conservative peer who supported the amendments, told Unearthed: “The public has to have more confidence in what is happening and not just around US standards and chlorinated chicken. There are lots of countries where animal welfare is below our standards. Upholding our standards was a Conservative manifesto commitment and we should have committed to them on the face of the Bill.” Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton Pavilion raised concerns that the risk to food and environmental standards could be “compounded” by the Environment Bill and Trade Bill. She told Unearthed: “Our food and animal welfare standards, and environmental protections, are all at serious risk from this government. It’s very free with the green rhetoric and promises, but these are never put in writing and if they’re not written into law, they are meaningless. The government’s refusal to accept amendments to the Agriculture Bill is bad enough, but the damage is likely to be compounded in other bills going through Parliament, which would all weaken environmental protections when they should be being strengthened.”
In briefings for meetings with Defra in March, FSA officials wrote that they are expecting applications to allow chemical-washed chicken and other poultry after the UK completes its transition period out of the EU in December. Under current rules, which are carried over from EU legislation, poultry can only be cleaned using water. But after the transition period, “The UK/FSA will be obliged to accept applications for authorisation of new substances to decontaminate carcasses” from trading partners. An application for new chemical washes would need to include evidence of the product’s safety, which food safety officials would examine before making a recommendation to ministers, who would take the final decision. “This will include the FSA’s views on consumer’s [sic] interests in relation to food,” the documents note.
Chemical washes on chicken are intended to remove bacteria and other pathogens left on carcasses, often as a result of poor hygiene from intensive farming conditions. A recent study found that the washes may simply conceal pathogens from tests rather than removing them entirely, meaning that the risk of foodborne illness from chickens treated in this way would remain. In the view of the FSA, the health secretary would take the final decision, after consulting with other departments including Defra and trade. It would then become law through a statutory instrument. The exact process is unclear although one document notes that this will be a “negative” statutory instrument, which gets no formal parliamentary scrutiny and is complicated for MPs to challenge or scrutinise in any way. Politicians are very keen to hide behind scientific advisors, whether it’s on food safety issues or coronavirus
Even if it was to be upgraded to a much rarer “affirmative” statutory instrument, parliamentary debate is likely to be confined to committee rooms rather than the floor of the House. Ministers could choose to use primary legislation to give parliament full scrutiny but have so far not committed to doing so. An FSA spokesperson told Unearthed: “The FSA puts food safety and consumers at the heart of everything we do. We will continue to provide and publish expert independent advice to Ministers based on the latest science and evidence. We are committed to doing everything we can to protect consumer interests and uphold food standards, both now and once the transition period ends. Decisions on food standards are a matter for the UK and will be made separately from any trade agreements.”
The agency is also readying itself for a WTO challenge on hormone-treated beef. The science behind the European ban on growth hormones in beef was successfully challenged at the WTO, but as a significant trading bloc the EU eventually appealed and was able to keep its ban in exchange for tariff-free access to beef that had not been treated with hormones. The ban will remain in force in the UK when the transition period first ends, but officials wrote: “The UK in maintaining this blanket ban will be open to challenge post exit.” The document notes: “Issues surrounding growth promotors are more extensive than purely food safety; due to the high level of consumer interest and a strong push from international partners likely on trade.”Although the growth hormones have not been proven to cause physiological harm to humans, “some evidential gaps remain”, it says. The European Commission has identified concerns about how some of the hormones used in US beef farming may impact the health of consumers. A decision “may need to be taken about whether the ban remains justifiable and what evidence is needed to support it”, the documents note. If the blanket ban on growth promoters was overturned, the drugs would need to be “assessed individually as veterinary medicines and a position taken based on the available evidence”, officials wrote. But the documents also reveal uncertainty around who would be responsible for handling any challenge to the ban on hormone-reared beef and “providing evidence to defend any WTO challenge”.
Meeting notes show that Defra’s Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD) and the FSA each argued it should be the other’s responsibility. The FSA felt the issue should be mainly the VMD’s responsibility since it related to animal medicines, while the VMD argued that since it was “most relevant for imported meat FSA would have the lead.”But the FSA noted: “any relaxation of the ban may have to apply for imported and domestic production”, suggesting that a successful WTO challenge could have a knock-on effect on British farming techniques. “Senior people in both the FSA and Defra recognise that they might have their arms twisted ferociously to authorise the import of beef from cattle treated with synthetic growth-promoting hormones, despite the fact that EU expert scientific panels have provided robust grounds for not accepting them,” said Millstone. “Consequently, both the FSA and Defra want to try to make sure that they don’t get blamed for approving them. Politicians are, however, very keen to hide behind scientific advisors, whether it’s on food safety issues or coronavirus.”Both Defra and the FSA are “trying to maximise their influence while minimising their responsibility for unpopular decisions,” Millstone added. “They don’t want their fingerprints on it.”
Environment secretary on the fence?
George Eustice, the environment secretary, has played down the risks of chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-reared beef entering the UK. But the documents also discuss efforts Eustice made last year when he was a backbencher to amend the Agriculture Bill specifically to ban the products. The documents discuss strategy for handling one of Eustice’s three amendments, which they said was “intended to prevent the use of chlorine and chemical washes from being authorised for poultry carcasses in order to facilitate a free trade agreement with the USA.”The amendments he proposed were dropped a month after Boris Johnson came into power.
Shortly after being promoted, Eustice met FSA officials to discuss subjects including chlorine-washed chicken. Officials prepared a memo answering questions he raised in the meeting, including what percentage of US poultry processors use chlorine and other chemical washes, and whether this level had risen or fallen in the last 20-30 years, “i.e. is there a downward trend in usage?”“[V]irtually all US processors” use chemical washes of some kind to remove bacteria and other pathogens from chicken carcasses, the officials responded. US food safety measures “recommend the use of chemical interventions during the poultry production process,” they added.
Later in the month, Eustice refused to explicitly rule out allowing chlorine-washed chicken into the UK in an interview with Sky’s Sophy Ridge, saying instead that the government had “no plans” to approve the product. “I’m not quite sure why the US would make such demands, because chlorine washes on chicken are a very outdated technology and it is not really used by the US any more,” Eustice said. He added that producers use lactic acid washes instead, but did not address the concerns about raising chickens in conditions that mean they need chemical treatment.