The Whitehouse Consultancy

By Chenoa Geerts, Associate Political Consultant

The UK’s International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, headed to the US last week, to lay the ground work for a potential transatlantic trade deal to be signed once the UK leaves the EU. His visit, however, was soon overshadowed by a row over whether or not the UK will have to accept imports of chlorinated chicken as part of any such future trade deal. This immediately sparked a debate on what price the UK is willing to pay for a deal with the US and whether this includes lowering its own food standards.

At issue here are two very different regulatory regimes and underlying attitudes to regulation. The EU has long been proud of its food standards. Working with the precautionary principle to regulate food, the EU only allows products that have been proved to be safe on the market. The US, on the other hand, takes the “innocent until proven guilty” approach, allowing products on its market that have so far not been proved to be dangerous. This has meant that chicken carcasses washed in chlorinated water, as well as other foods such as hormone-fed beef and certain genetically modified crops are banned in the European single market, while they are permitted in the US. This difference in standards was a major stumbling block in the EU-US trade talks for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which stalled when Donald Trump came to power.

The UK, as a member of the EU, currently prohibits the marketing and sale of chlorinated chicken, but when it leaves the bloc it will have the opportunity to amend its laws governing food safety. The question is whether the UK Government will decide to accommodate to the US’s standards to facilitate a post-Brexit trade agreement, or to maintain current EU standards. As we have seen in many other trade negotiations, including TTIP, overcoming non-tariff trade barriers such as food safety standards is the biggest challenge. This is something the UK will have to face whilst negotiating from a position of weakness. Every other country in the world knows that the UK government is desperate to make a success out of Brexit and may be amenable to compromise if it makes that success more likely.

Yet the Government has sent mixed signals over whether food safety standards will be up for discussion. Over in the US, Liam Fox was at pains to insist that chlorinated chicken was something minor that would be addressed later in the trade talks. In the UK, however, his (equally pro-Brexit) Cabinet colleague, the Environment Secretary Michael Gove, rejected the idea of the UK accepting chlorinated chicken as part of a trade deal.

Whatever the Government decides to do, ministers must bear in mind that not only is a trade deal with the US at stake, but that non-tariff barriers will also impact a future deal with the EU. The UK’s priority in the Brexit negotiations is to secure the “freest and most frictionless trade possible” with the EU. However, if it lowers its food safety standards, this goal might be jeopardised, as the EU will not accept food products below its own standards on to the EU market.

It seems hard to believe that chickens can be so important for the UK’s bid to become a global trade partner. However, in its efforts to become just that, it may well find itself between an American shaped rock and a European sized hard place.

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