15 June 2020

The Mail on Sunday’s campaign against US food imports is a new low

By

Rarely has a debate been so replete with misinformation and scaremongering as the one currently raging over post-Brexit food and trade regulation.

The nadir has been the campaign conducted by the Mail on Sunday for the last three weeks to ‘save our farms’. The campaign is a thinly veiled piece of anti-Americanism culminating yesterday in Lib Dem MP Layla Moran’s absurd demand that Trade Secretary Liz Truss eat a menu of American ‘Frankenfood’. Never mind that millions of British tourists visit the US every year and enjoy high quality, cheaper American food and probably return to Britain asking themselves why life’s staples are so much more expensive here.

Let’s get things straight. Contrary to what you might have heard, there is no reason for the UK to lower its environmental standards to do a trade deal with the US.  Indeed, the US negotiating mandate for the talks makes it clear that the UK must not lower its environmental standards for trade advantage. The UK Government has repeatedly pointed out that it will not do so.

The debate is reminiscent of the era of the Corn Laws, which pitted Tory landowners who wanted to keep food prices artificially high, and the northern manufacturers who spoke for British consumers and wanted the benefits of free trade. Cobden is famous not for demanding bread be sold not at an ever lower price, but simply at a market price. Fortunately, Cobden and Bright won the day, and Britain entered an era of great prosperity on the back of free trade.

The Mail on Sunday’s campaign seems to be based on an irrational stoking up of fear among the British public that somehow American food is unsafe. Quite the opposite is true. With respect to food hygiene standards, it is likely that the Americans will want to see the UK improve on EU standards if its farmers want to serve American consumers. British lamb is still banned across the pond as a result of the BSE crisis, and the American lamb sector is now making similar protectionist arguments as to why our lamb should continue to be kept out of the US. If the UK cannot secure an FTA with the EU by December because the EU’s terms are unacceptable, then British farmers will need access to new markets, and they should bear in mind that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. 

As for food-born pathogens, incidents of Campylobacter and Salmonella are much higher in the EU than in the US despite the fact that the US consumer eats twice as much poultry as the average EU citizen per capita. Whereas 20 cases of campylobacter are diagnosed each year in the US per 100,000 people, 94.8 cases per 100,000 people are diagnosed in the UK. The reason why the US requires pathogen reduction treatments is not, as the conventional wisdom in the UK goes, because they want to mistreat animals, but rather because they want to keep people safe, and they do a much better job of it than the UK.

In any event, these same chlorine rinses are already used in this country in salads, fish and our drinking water. The real reason it isn’t used for poultry has nothing to do with safety and everything to do with keeping out US imports.  In any case, about 90% of American poultry is washed not in chlorine, but in peracetic acid (which is more like vinegar), which was certified by the European Food Safety Agency as safe more than five years ago.  Nor is this brand of protectionism anything new – the poultry wars of the 1960s were a direct result of French and German protectionism against American chicken. Plus ça change…

By conflating the animal welfare argument and the food safety argument, the Mail on Sunday seeks to sow confusion in the minds of the British consumer. Either this is a food safety argument, in which the UK looks much, much worse than the US, or it is an animal welfare one.

If the latter, then it is relevant that stocking densities for poultry in America are actually much lower for younger birds and only fractionally higher than the UK for larger birds.  The US range is approximately 31 kg/sq m to around 43 Kg/sq m, and the UK has a maximum on 39 Kg/sq m.  Much higher stocking densities are found in Poland and other EU member states, but no animal welfare concerns are raised for these products. 

We also import chicken from Brazil and Thailand – are the campaigners really saying that these birds are kept in better conditions?  This line of attack also misunderstands the nature of American farming. In the US, an area about the size of Wales contains organic poultry farming to the highest animal welfare standards.  As the US ambassador has noted, if British people want to eat an American chicken that has been raised as somebody’s family pet, they can.

Layla Moran’s ‘feast’ for the Secretary of State also features scary-sounding hormone-treated beef.  It’s worth noting that America produces plenty of non-hormone treated beef as well, but let’s look at the facts for the hormone-treated variety.  Beef from a non-implanted steer contains .85 units of oestrogenic activity per 3 oz. serving, while beef from an implanted steer contains 1.2 units of oestrogenic activity in the same serving. However, this amount is a fraction of what is found in many other common foods.  The same quantity of eggs would provide 94 units of oestrogenic activity and a 3 oz. serving of tofu would provide 19,306,004 units of oestrogenic activity. In fact, a normal adult male produces 136,000 ng/mL of oestrogen per day while a non-pregnant woman produces 513,000 ng/mL per day on average. 

Looking at these figures it’s easy to see why the EU’s hormone beef ban is a WTO violation, since there is no scientific evidence for it whatsoever.  Indeed, before the ban was implemented, the UK’s own vets found there was no evidence for it (a fact cited to by the WTO panel).  It is rather bizarre that the UK’s own vets lobbied against the ban while we were in the EU, but our government would now seek to promote this wholly unscientific and illegal ban while it is outside the EU.

What about GM foods? The reference to ‘Frankenfood’ in the Mail on Sunday article is designed to remind people of Prince Charles’ well-known comments on GMOs in the late 90s, which contributed to another illegal ban from the EU. There’s an important development dimension here – synthetic biology, including gene editing, is helping feed the world. Yet environmental campaigners, who in many cases are the same people who are campaigning for the relief of global poverty, have succeeded in depriving poor people of golden rice, which is designed to increase levels of Vitamin A – bear in mind that 670,000 children under the age of five dies each year of Vitamin A deficiency, and another 500,000 go blind as a result). These same campaigners are also demanding that less arable land is used for farming for environmental reasons – yet the only way to do this is to increase crop yield which is why gene editing and GMO technologies are so important. Simply banning GM wholesale is not a responsible approach.

There are legitimate arguments to be had about food safety, animal standards and protecting British farmers. But it is essential to know what exactly we are protecting them from, and how best to do so. That debate will require more light and less heat than the vacuous Mail on Sunday campaign.

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Shanker Singham is CEO of Competere and former trade advisor to the International Trade Secretary and the United States Trade Representative.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.