Rat Hairs

@geofftansey interviewed me when my book Bittersweet Brexit came out. Given the many stories about the impact of trade deals, particularly with the USA, on current food standards in the UK he asked me for my take on these potential deals. This is updated version of his blog.

A trade deal around food with the USA is not just about chlorinated chicken (although that is pretty important according to Felicity Lawrence and there is quite a debate about the science of it's safety) hormone drenched beef, or even ractomine-fed pigs – the chemicals used in USA to clean, to grow and to keep creatures lean. In September ('19), new rules allow faster pork slaughterhouse line speeds - and less formal inspections. The USA is ‘more macho’ about these matters than we in the UK are. They allow more white blood cells (a signal of infection) in milk with ours. But the one that seems to stick in people’s memory (or is that throat?) is allowing ‘rat hairs’ in peanut butter. The US Food and Drink Administration (FDA) says you can have 5 per jar along with 150 insect parts; you can also happily find 5 whole insects in every half kilo of frozen fruit. They call these sorts of contaminations ‘unavoidable defects[i] Yet we seem to avoid these defects quite well. The FDA says these “Food Defect Action Levels” are set on the premise that they pose ‘no inherent hazard to health’. Yet, there are nearly 400 deaths a year in America from Salmonella, whereas we’ve not had one for many years.[ii] 80% of UK people say they do not want to drop these standards. Yet this may be another price to pay for a ‘No Deal’ – or rather a ‘Trump Deal’ – Brexit.

The EU has stricter standards, claiming scientific methods underlie the regulations, although the US will challenge any attempts we may make to maintain those standards once outside the EU. Generally, the EU implement a ‘hazards’ based approach – ie one that looks at intrinsic harm. This is linked with the ‘Precautionary Principle’ based on the idea of being ‘safe rather than sorry’. An example of this is the use of Maximum Residue levels of pesticides in food, which most food retailers follow closely.

The other main approach is ‘risk’ based where somebody tries to work out what actual damage may be caused. In the UK we have always favoured this way. While on the UK government’s Advisory Committee on Pesticides, we were asked which approach we preferred. I said ‘Hazards’ – and lost 1 to 18. We can expect a challenge from the USA on what they call ‘acceptable risk’- see full details of their negotiating position[iii]. They make it clear in that document, that they believe our standards are ‘non science’. The rest of Europe is fearful the USA will challenge the UK – and win, and thus weaken the EU ways.

If we have a ‘No Deal’, we will be handing Trump his menu on a plate. This is because these standards represent much more than the numbers, reflecting two different ways the EU and US deal with the main problem with food production in the world – overproduction. Worldwide we can grow far too much food for people to buy to eat. Many go hungry because they cannot afford the food, not because we can’t produce it.

The US subsidises its farmers over $850 Billion this year[iv], while EU pays their farmers around €60bn[v] to deal with the low prices caused by saturated markets. The US produces as much as possible, then tries to get rid of it round the world. The US Farm Bureau clearly says we ‘must accept their standards so they can increase their market’. They have done ever since the Marshall Plan after WW2 when they realised the political power that dependence on food could bring. In 1970s, Earl Butz’s – their then Secretary of Agriculture – rallying call was ‘food as a weapon[vi].

Europe also encouraged food production post war – so it was never again dependent on US political food power. But the food mountains started to appear, so we took a different tack in the 1990s. Instead of encouraging more production, efforts were directed to ‘greening’ – not very successful. However, we came up with another way of dealing with excess, and this was promoted by Mrs Thatcher’s encouragement for a SINGLE market. By maintaining high health, safety and welfare standards, it limited agricultural production to only those who could afford to invest, yet knowing they were protected’ from outsiders – unless they were using the same standards. This kept the EU internal market more buoyant. This is what led to all those mythical complaints about rules banning mince pies, prawn cocktail crisps and mushy peas – many promoted by our present PM - who clearly knew about porkies.

However, there is a big distinction – as I spelt out in Bittersweet Brexit – between people wanting rid of the ‘bureaucracy’, ‘Brexiteers’, and those wanting ‘Free Markets’. According to 'the Agri-Brigade' in Private Eye (Issue 1503. 23 Aug 2019) : "Gove's much-heralded Agriculture Bill was kicked into touch as his proposed retention of food import tariffs proved too contentious with some of his 'free trade' cabinet colleagues." Aug 2019.

These marketers hide behind Brexit, as they dash off to do deals, most of which will involve selling our financial services and buying their cheap food. More cheap food, without any standards, will come into the country, making us still more dependent on overseas food, causing environmental impacts elsewhere. Our DEFRA Chief Scientist thinks that is good as ‘we should have choice’ [vii] Yet our family farming community growing the sheep and beef, will be off to slaughter soon, and we will get fatter with the sugary corn syrup and soya, that the USA is trying to get rid of – especially now that China aren’t buying it.

[i] https://www.fda.gov/food/ingredients-additives-gras-packaging-guidance-documents-regulatory-information/food-defect-levels-handbook[ii]https://www.sustainweb.org/news/feb18_US_foodpoisoning/[iii] https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/Summary_of_U.S.-UK_Negotiating_Objectives.pdf[iv] https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2018/12/11/congresss-billion-farm-bill-is-out-heres-whats-it[v] https://ec.europa.eu/info/food-farming-fisheries/key-policies/common-agricultural-policy/cap-glance_en#howitspaidfor[vi] https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/ethics-of-aid-and-trade/food-weapon-and-the-strategic-concept-of-food-policy/114F207E97A9BA33C9DCBDD209BBCB40[vii] https://www.fginsight.com/news/shoppers-should-have-choice-to-buy-hormone-treated-beef-says-defra-chief-scientist–92489