Chlorinated chicken debate is a ‘distraction’ from real food import issues, says MP
Farming leaders have been “barking up the wrong tree” by raising fears about imports of chlorinated chicken and hormone-injected beef to make their point in trade debates, said a Norfolk MP.
Jerome Mayhew was one of three Norfolk MPs who joined an online discussion about the challenges and opportunities facing agriculture, organised by the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association and chaired by Emily Norton, head of rural research at Savills.
The protection of food, animal welfare and environmental standards was one of the topics raised, an area where the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has campaigned to prevent UK farmers being undermined by cheap imports produced to standards that would be illegal in this country.
Mr Mayhew, who is a director of an agricultural business in his Broadland constituency, said although he was a supporter of the NFU he believed it had become “distracted” by repeatedly using the examples of chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-injected beef, which he said could never form part of a free trade agreement.
“I don’t think the NFU has covered itself in glory in the last few months,” he said. “I think they have been barking up the wrong tree. I think they have made a huge row over something which doesn’t exist.
“They have gone on about chlorinated chicken and hormone-injected beef, neither of which have got anything to do with a free trade agreement, even in theory, because both are caught by food safety import standards which are outside the scope of any negotiation. So whichever way you look at the free trade agreement, they are not any part of it.
“There are things that the NFU could and should have focused on, which are products produced abroad to a lower standard – and we are talking about animal husbandry primarily rather than arable – which are safe, in a way that you could argue chlorine-washed chicken isn’t. Under a free trade agreement they may very well be part of the deal.
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“Let’s say we get to a deal before the [US] presidential elections in November, and there is a ‘take it or leave it’ moment, and part of that big deal is access to the American market for beef, sheep, lamb, pork, but the other side of the deal is access to the UK market for meat products which have been produced to a lower welfare standard therefore at a lower cost. That is a risk, and in my view that is exactly where the NFU should have been focusing and they got distracted, which I think was a mistake.
“If we are given that choice, what does the NFU think is the right thing to do? Because you’ve got an option of protecting what you already have at the low end of the market, the chicken pie end of the market, set against the opportunity to gain access to 328 million of the richest people in the world who like eating a lot of meat, particularly at the top end.
“All the modelling that has been done by the Department for International Trade says every section of British agriculture in every region of our country would benefit net from a free trade agreement with America, but there will be losers as well as winners. It would be an interesting debate for the NFU to have about where do you stand if push comes to shove in October on that point.”
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Mr Mayhew’s comments were made in response to his Conservative colleague Duncan Baker, the MP for North Norfolk, who said he thought the NFU had done “an incredibly good job over the last few months”.
He said: “The reason I say that is because it is that movement which very firmly made it absolutely clear to any member of parliament who has any agricultural area in their constituency to damn well make sure that in any trade deal that we do, whether it is with the US or anyone else, that we absolutely protect our farmers. The government couldn’t be clearer that we will not compromise on our high animal welfare and import standards.”
Also speaking at Thursday’s webinar was South Norfolk MP Richard Bacon, who said: “I agree with a lot of what Jerome has said. I do think the NFU has missed an opportunity, but don’t think for one moment that the NFU does not have a very serious voice that is listened to directly by ministers.”
Other issues discussed included balancing environmental and planning targets with the need for viable food production, and the potential impacts of the three major bills currently progressing through parliament: the agriculture, environment and fisheries bills.
NFU Norfolk council delegate Tony Bambridge said: “Jerome Mayhew is my local MP and I was pleased to meet him on-farm today (Friday) to have a really good discussion on key issues, including the NFU’s campaign on food and farming standards.
“The focus of the campaign is to ensure the government does not allow the imports of food produced to standards that would be illegal here through future trade deals. It is not about protectionism but about making sure our high standards of animal welfare, environmental protection and food safety are safeguarded during these crucial trade negotiations.
“In the US there are no federal controls on what are deemed in the UK to be fundamental welfare requirements. The need for chlorine washing is because of a lower standard of animal husbandry for the majority of chicken that is farmed there – it’s an animal welfare issue.
“And in Japan, Australia, China, Canada, Brazil, Malaysia and India the use of antibiotics is permitted for growth promotion, a practice that is banned here.
“Ensuring our standards are not undermined is a fundamental issue the new Trade and Agriculture Commission will address and we look forward to working with it, and our local MPs, to get the best outcome for farmers and consumers alike.”
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