Should we be worried about importing chlorine-washed chickens from the US after Brexit? Trade minister dismisses Remain campaigners’ health concerns

Liam Fox has dismissed health concerns about importing chlorine-washed chickens from the US after Brexit.

The International Trade Secretary said there are bigger issues to focus on when working out a UK-US free trade agreement and condemned the British ‘obsession’ with chickens.

The EU bans the import of meat washed in chlorine amid concerns it lowers food safety standards.

But the practice is not banned in the US, and Remain campaigners have warned a UK-US deal would include importing chlorine-washed chickens to Britain.

Theresa May’s official spokesman yesterday would not deny that this would happen. And on a visit to the US, Dr Fox said the issue of chickens was merely a ‘detail’.

Asked if he would eat a chlorine-washed chicken, Dr Fox said: ‘In a debate which should be about how we make our contribution to global liberalisation and the increased prosperity of the UK, the US and our trading partners … the British media are obsessed with chlorine-washed chickens, a detail of the very end stage of one sector of a potential free trade agreement.’

Addressing the American Enterprise Institute think-tank, he added sarcastically: ‘We work on the premise that the British press in Washington never eat US chicken when they are here due to their health worries.’

Washing poultry in chlorine is feared to lead to worse food standards on the basis that abattoirs could rely on it as a decontaminant – and therefore be less careful about avoiding bugs like salmonella infecting the chicken in the first place.

Last night peers warned animal welfare could also be undermined if post-Brexit trade deals leave British farmers competing with less-regulated foreign rivals and are forced to cut costs.

The cross-party House of Lords EU committee said in a report: ‘Unless consumers are willing to pay for higher welfare products, UK farmers could become uncompetitive and welfare standards could come under pressure.’

Concerns have also been raised about importing beef containing growth hormones from the US. Lord Teverson, the committee chairman, said research is ‘not conclusive’ about fears that hormones could enter the human food chain, but said growth hormones are ‘seen as an unnatural way to rear animals and enable the US to compete unfairly with Britain’.

Lord Teverson also said there was a ‘division’ in government between Dr Fox, whose priority is a trade deal, and Environment Secretary Michael Gove, who has demanded safety standards must not fall after Brexit.

Remain campaigner and Labour MP Ben Bradshaw said: ‘The Government is putting the Fox in charge of the hen coop when it comes to food safety. The Government is so desperate for new trade deals to make up for some of the losses [of leaving the single market] that they seem ready to compromise on the safety of our food.’

Mrs May’s spokesman said it was too early to discuss details of a trade deal, such as chlorinated chicken. But he added: ‘Maintaining the safety in the food we eat is of the highest priority.’

Harmless – or easy fix for dirty meat?

  • In the US it is legal to ‘wash’ chicken meat in chlorine – the chemical found in many bathroom cleaning products
  • This helps to remove bacteria such as salmonella to protect consumers
  • The Adam Smith Institute think-tank, which is in favour of chlorine washes, says they reduce the risk of salmonella from 14 per cent to 2 per cent
  • It said: ‘Brits would have to eat three entire chlorine-washed chickens every day for an extended period to risk harm’
  • But the treatment is banned in the EU amid concerns it could be used to make up for poor hygiene elsewhere. It has been called an ‘easy fix for dirty meat’
  • Experts warn the practice could mean salmonella-infected chicken enters the food chain as it reduces the incentive for farmers to prevent contamination earlier
  • If the UK accepts US chlorine chicken, it won’t need to be labelled as such since the ‘washes’ are seen as ‘processing aids’

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