24 July 2017

We have nothing to fear from American chickens


Today’s Brexit horror story has landed: we’re going to be inundated with chlorine-washed chickens. The curse of this cleansed poultry is such that we must immediately resubmit to the dictates of Brussels.

Well, that is the impression you’d get from reading the newspapers on the subject – and it would also be to get the benefits and mechanics of trade entirely the wrong way around.

Liam Fox is off to the US to see if he can get a free trade agreement out of them. Super – in the absence of such deals we revert to WTO terms with everyone in about 18 months, and we think we’d rather like to do better than that. We can do better than that, too. The point of trade, after all, is that we get access to all those lovely things the foreigners do better than we do. Thus the benefits of trade rest upon what limits we place upon imports and nothing else.

Unfortunately, that’s not quite how trade agreements are negotiated and definitely not with Trump in the White House and Robert Lighthizer as the US Trade Rep. They both insist that it’s being able to export which is the benefit. Given that we want to reach an agreement with them, we’ll have to play it that way a little then.

All of which leads to this hoo-ha about chicken. Standard American practice is that the slaughtered little birdie gets bathed in a light chlorine solution to reduce the various bacteria and infections the carcass is prone to. As an Adam Smith Institute report shows, there’s nothing much wrong with this. Even the EU’s own phytosanitary advisers agree.

But we don’t believe that over here, of course. Chlorine has been demonised by Greenpeace and their ilk to such an extent that some want it to be banned from drinking water, where it is used as a disinfectant. This idiocy has rather infected our food regulation.

Furthermore, American chicken is substantially (perhaps 20 per cent) cheaper than European. That competition would not be fun for those who produce the stuff in Europe. Hence the Baptists and Bootleggers coalition to make sure that the Yankee stuff isn’t allowed in: hysterics about chemicals combine with those protecting their business turf to prevent the imports.

But if we’d all rather like that trade deal with the US, and since allowing in the chicken – chlorine and all – looks like the price of it, why wouldn’t we do it?

Is the answer that Britons just don’t want chlorine-washed chicken? Well, if that’s the case we should just allow it in. If no one wants it, no one will buy it, no one will eat it and there will be no problem. Plus, we’ll have just given in to a major US demand – at no cost to ourselves – and got our free trade deal.

But what if people in Britain do want to eat this chicken? Perhaps that lower price, combined with the lower likelihood of the stuff poisoning us, will lead to a resurgence of Southern Fried across the land? In which case, why is that a problem?

It reminds me of all those protesting against supermarkets. They insisted that everyone would really prefer to use the high street than a shed at the edge of town. But the very fact that they were protesting belied their position. If their assertion were true, then the builders of the shed would go bust, as everyone would still use the high street.

It is only if you believe that the local shops would become a howling desert with the advent of the shed, that you can possibly believe that people must be prevented, by law, from using the shed.

This is equally true of imports of any kind – yes, including the feathered variety. We can’t go on banning them because people don’t want them because it wouldn’t make sense. If they don’t want them, they simply won’t buy them. And if we think they will buy them – the only justification for the banning – then why are we banning people from doing what they wish to do?

The point and purpose of trade is to get those things which other countries do better – cheaper, nicer, of a more favourable hue even – than we do. The definition of “better” is up to each individual consumer each and every time they buy something.

The only possible reason we could have for not allowing in American, chlorine-washed chicken is the fear that someone might actually want to consume it. At which point, what on earth are we doing using the law to stop them?

Tim Worstall is senior fellow at Adam Smith Institute