Thursday 20 February 2020 7:30 pm

Exclusive: Did someone say chicken? UK preparing to break with EU on food safety at WTO meeting

Downing Street is considering taking an independent stance on food safety at an upcoming WTO summit, in yet another breach of transition rules within the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.

The stage will be set when the US formally welcomes the UK as an independent member of the WTO during a meeting about sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures.

The UK’s permanent representative Julian Braithwaite is expected to respond with “a clear statement about future intentions” on areas like beef hormones, gene editing and GM foods and the use of peracetic acid to wash poultry, City A.M. understands.

Peracetic acid is commonly used instead of chlorine when processing chicken. Although Boris Johnson has ruled out “chlorinated chicken” in previous speeches, he has also said future decisions on food safety will be “governed by science and not by mumbo jumbo”.

Sources indicated that Downing Street is adopting a broad interpretation of the duty of sincere cooperation that all EU member states are bound to, as well as commitments made within the Withdrawal Agreement.

One source said: “In the past ministers have been told by government lawyers ‘you can’t do that’ and ministers have meekly not done it.

“You now have a very different approach from Number 10 in which ministers will do whatever they need to do to be successful, and will read the duty of sincere cooperation accordingly.”

It is understood that no decision has yet been finalised.

Last month City A.M. revealed plans were afoot to move Braithwaite away from the EU’s table at the WTO months before transition permitted, in what amounted to a breach of terms.

Professor Catherine Barnard, senior fellow of The UK in a Changing Europe, said this was yet another sign that Downing Street was “testing the limits”.

“Clearly the EU didn’t respond last time… and it would be odd to pick a fight over something that is important, but fairly obscure.

“But SPS is the hot topic, the most sensitive issue about any trade negotiation with the EU or the US, so it is politically huge.”

Theoretically, the Commission could suspend the Withdrawal Agreement – which includes applying sanctions. “But this is a carefully calibrated political dance, and they don’t want to try the nuclear option of engaging remedies so soon,” Barnard said.

“We are not in the normal EU world anymore.”

A Defra spokesperson said: “We remain firmly committed to upholding our high environmental, food safety and animal welfare standards outside the EU.

“The government will stand firm in trade negotiations to ensure our future trade deals live up to the values of farmers and consumers across the UK. “