After Brexit, a future that could be hard to stomach

A post-Brexit future carries the threat of lower standards and higher food safety risks, warns University of Sussex professor Erik Millstone. Photo credit: Centre for Food Policy
A post-Brexit future carries the threat of lower standards and higher food safety risks, warns University of Sussex professor Erik Millstone. Photo credit: Centre for Food Policy

Professor Erik Millstone neatly sums up what he sees as the risks to food safety posed by leaving the EU – he calls it ‘Food Brexit’, and uppermost in his mind are the public health dangers that may come from a trade deal with the United States.

“Rates of bacterial food poisoning are about 10 times greater in the USA than they are in the EU,” the University of Sussex professor told me. Accepting chlorine-washed chickens into the UK under the guise of consumer choice would be a “slippery slope” to accepting the use of chemical disinfectants on fish, fruit and vegetables.

We spoke a few days after he featured in Channel 4’s Dispatches, ‘Dirty secrets of American food coming to a supermarket near you?’ on October 12.

Anyone who watched will have been shocked by the prospect of chlorine-washed chickens, hormone-injected beef, drug-fed pork and pesticide-ridden vegetables and fruit potentially coming our way. Prof Millstone says we’re right to be concerned. A leading expert on food safety, he has been holding policy makers and the food industry to account for many years about issues such as BSE and artificial sweeteners.

He and his colleagues have been writing a series of briefings for the Food Research Collaboration about the implications of a trade deal with the USA. One of these is about the risks to health that importing chlorine-washed chickens from the US would bring. Washing chicken carcasses with chlorinated water does not remove bacteria, only masks them when tests are carried out; so there is a high risk of passing contamination on to humans and causing food poisoning.

The professor has also written about the risks of eating hormone-treated beef. In the Dispatches programme, he warned that at least one of the hormones used in the US is potentially carcinogenic and the others are not proved to be safe to use. Hormones in beef have been banned for use in the EU for over 30 years. “Beef hormones may lead to chronic, long term cancers 20-30 years down the road.”

At the moment, the UK benefits from being part of the EU’s strong regulatory framework for food safety, which is based on the precautionary principle. Although this is not always evenly applied in the EU, Prof Millstone emphasised: “Overall, food and agricultural standards are significantly higher in the EU than in the USA and are amongst the highest in the world,” covering animal welfare, food safety and environmental protection.

Chickens, plucked and ready to be chlorinated. The process is not enough to prevent food-borne illness, says Prof Millstone. Photo Credit: USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS)
Chickens, plucked and ready to be chlorinated. The process is not enough to prevent food-borne illness, says Prof Millstone. Photo Credit: USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS)

Standards in the US used to be higher, but were watered down by Ronald Reagan and successive Presidents through the adoption of neo-liberal policies: “In the late 80s and early 90s, corporate lobbying and influence led to regulations being repeatedly weakened.”

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If the UK fails to reach an agreement with the EU, which is looking increasingly likely, and does not do a deal with the USA, then we would have to adopt World Trade Organisation (WTO) standards. Prof Millstone’s view is: “Brexiteers argue that we can set our own standards, but this is entirely illusory. It will be impossible to export to other countries unless our products and services comply with their standards.”

His vision of the result of a no-deal Brexit is sombre, with thousands of lorries queueing on the M20 and tariffs as high as 20-22 per cent on food imports from the EU, as predicted by the British Retail Consortium.

Prof Millstone adds: “The value of sterling will also fall, leading to significant price increases and supply difficulties – the government will try to blame the problems on the pandemic, but that tactic is unlikely to be persuasive.”

Public backing for standards

These are serious potential outcomes, but Prof Millstone is surprisingly upbeat about public responses: “Poll after poll of the British public shows a high level of support for the maintenance of high standards.” He and his colleagues wrote to all the major supermarket chains and asked for their assurance that they would not stock inferior food, which most of them gave.

But when they asked the same of catering companies, they received no such undertakings. The professor thinks there is a real danger of contaminated food creeping unnoticed into the catering industry, into fast-food outlets and school dinners. 

There is clearly a long way to go before these issues are resolved. Prof Millstone is officially retired, though he has not stopped working and is clearly passionate about his research: “A lot is at stake.” His post-retirement project is to play the saxophone – another passion – “but I haven’t had time yet.” Let’s hope he finds time to practise, but also continues to lobby on our behalf for a long time to come.

Many thanks to Prof Erik Millstone for his time and input into this article.

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