With a Brexit deal finally secured, the EU has confirmed that tariffs won’t be imposed on UK imports or exports. While this has quashed fears that food will immediately become more expensive, price regulation is the tip of the iceberg for the post-Brexit food industry. What will our separation from Europe mean for food production and regulation?
Currently, approximately half of the food we consume is produced within the UK. Around 30% is imported from the EU, and 11% is imported from non-EU countries. Crucially, this 11% from further afield is orchestrated through EU trade deals. Hence, Brexit won’t just affect our access to the European market, but also the established ties it holds within global markets too. As Britain enters the single market, concerns have been raised that new deals with countries such as the US, Japan and New Zealand (all of which have been identified as priorities) will hold the UK to different, often lower standards. This is likely to occur if food is merged within larger, complex negotiations, including other products and services which may be desirable to attain at lower costs. But is this simply anti-Brexit scaremongering or are concerns well founded?
Chlorinated chicken has become the incarnation of sceptics' fears. Washing chicken with chlorine is a practice used in the US to remove harmful bacteria, currently banned under EU regulation. There are concerns that treating chicken with chlorine-washes or other chemical substances at the end of the production process is a way of covering up poorer hygiene standards. Hence, as US-UK trade agreements enter discussion, there is fear that our health and welfare standards- renowned for their relative rigour-will be compromised. The issue of chicken epitomises a host of issues yet to be encountered as new deals are struck up. According to research by Which?, 90% of UK consumers believe it is essential that UK food standards are maintained after Brexit, but will this be achievable as we seek out new suppliers, essential to meet our demand? 68% of people claim they would not be comfortable with eating chicken washed in chlorine, and recent trends show that welfare and quality are key consumer priorities. There is additional concern that, should we allow the import of chlorine-washed chicken, UK farmers would be undercut by cheap imports that adhere to different standards. This would ultimately put UK welfare standards at risk. In addition, experts suggest that if UK farms are forced to close due to competition, it will be near impossible to restore them to their current levels at a later date.
Caroline Normand, Which? Director emphasises that it is essential that ‘the nation’s needs must not be used as a bargaining chip that could be given away to facilitate trade.’ As Britain’s solo endeavour commences, the discussion of chickens might seem trivial. Yet, perhaps the quality of our poultry will become symbolic of our fate as a nation: will we rise to the challenge and maintain our integrity, or fall down a slippery slope, being forced to embrace other countries instruction?