Why did the chicken cross the Atlantic? Because the UK was no longer bound by EU rules

Peter Spence
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Chickens On Display At The 2016 Poultry Show
Allowing chemically treated chicken onto supermarket shelves should not be seen as a cost at all (Source: Getty)

If Britain really is to make a success of Brexit, it will do so by scrapping the worst excesses of EU regulation.

Not those mythological prohibitions on the purchases of bendy bananas, but the much more tangible curbs on foods produced with modern scientific techniques. The kinds that have been enjoyed by our friends over the Atlantic for decades.

The US is the world’s second largest poultry exporter, and its veteran trade negotiators will already be sizing up the UK poultry market access as a target for trade talks. It is almost inevitable that one controversial US practice – the use of chlorine solutions to disinfect poultry carcasses – will become a crucial issue in post-Brexit trade talks with the US, symbolic of how flexible the UK government is willing to be in striking new deals.

Read more: Trump confirms he's coming to London and expects quick UK trade deal

The EU banished imports of chickens disinfected with so-called “pathogen reduction treatments” in the 1990s, appealing to concerns about the potential side effects of ingesting chlorine byproducts on human health.

What may have once been a sensible concern has been relegated to pseudoscientific alarmism by the years of research conducted since. More than a decade ago, the EU’s own scientific advisers concluded that such rinses “would be of no safety concern”.

A person would have to eat around five per cent of their body weight in chicken (nearly three whole birds a day for the typical British man) to reach the safety limit, according to European Commission data. Drinking water poses a far greater risk, making up 99 per cent of the disinfection byproducts consumed in a typical daily diet.

Allowing chemically treated chicken onto supermarket shelves should not be seen as a cost at all. The emergence of niches for organic and locally grown food show that British consumers are a discerning bunch. If consumers demand it, shops will label their chickens to reflect how they were produced, as with free range birds.

US imports could also help to bring down British grocery bills. A whole kilo of chicken costs an American shopper around 21 per cent less than the equivalent on UK shelves.

The world of trade negotiations remains stuck in the past in some ways, in a mercantilist mode. It is taken as a given if that you are to grant a trading partner some market access, you must receive some in return.

We have known since Adam Smith that liberalising trade benefits all parties involved. However, the petty politics of trade negotiations often get in the way. And in this regard, the UK’s comparatively small size as a negotiating partner could actually be an advantage. The Office of the US Trade Representative considers opposition to US chicken exports one of the top barriers to trade with the EU, which has been extremely hesitant to cede any agricultural market access. This has led to talks getting bogged down.

The real opposition to the US food industry in the EU has always been from Germany and France, not Britain. When the EU’s member states resisted the European Commission’s own attempts to liberalise trade in poultry in 2008, the UK was the only EU member not to vote against relaxing the ban on chemically treated chicken.

Now that the UK will be standing alone in agreeing deals, it can live up to its reputation as an open-facing and free trading country and eschew the baggage of European protectionism and distaste for foreign products. By being open to negotiations on trivial but emotive points like chicken, British negotiators can send a signal to the rest of the world that we are willing to make the concessions required to agree deals quickly and cheaply.

The UK can afford to make compromises on the issue of chlorinated chicken. And it’s a price worth paying to show the rest of the world we are open for business.

Read more: What the EU-Japan trade deal means for the UK’s negotiations

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