Skip to main content

Food: Chicken and Beef

Volume 804: debated on Tuesday 7 July 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what advice they give to British travellers to the United States of America on the risks of eating (1) chicken which has been subject to a pathogen reduction treatment, and (2) hormone-fed beef.

My Lords, the Government do not offer advice on this specific matter to British travellers. The Foreign Office keeps our travel advice under constant review and ensures that it reflects the most relevant risks to British nationals travelling overseas. All travel advice pages signpost to expert travel health advice from UK health bodies.

Is not the real reason for not issuing a health warning that American chicken and beef pose no health risks? Indeed, there are fewer salmonella and campylobacter cases in America than in Europe. Has this scare not been concocted by anti-Americans who want to sabotage a potential UK-US trade deal? They will not succeed because 90% of US chicken is not washed with chlorine, which anyway poses no health risks, and American animal welfare standards are no lower than in eastern Europe, Thailand and Brazil, from which we currently import chicken and beef. Should we not focus on the opportunities a US deal could offer British farmers, manufacturers and financial services?

Each country must make its own decision on a range of issues based on its own individual circumstances and attitude to risk. As my noble friend will know, we have legislated by the withdrawal Act 2018 against the use of artificial growth hormones in domestic production and imported meat products. Our legislation also prohibits the use of anything other than potable water to decontaminate poultry carcasses. Any changes would require new legislation. It is important to note that the approach we follow in this country, which I believe consumers want, is one where animals are reared in a way that does not necessitate chlorine treatment to be made safe.

My Lords, I am grateful for what the Minister just said. Can he tell us whether Her Majesty’s Government have conducted any assessment of antibiotic use among beef farmers in the United States? If so, what might be the potential implications for public health of beef imports following any future trade deal?

That is an enormously important point. I will have to get back to the right reverend Prelate with the precise data, but there is no doubt that we will need a big reduction in the use of antibiotics in farming globally. The UK is pushing hard for that, particularly on prophylactic or preventative use, where there are emerging links between overuse of antibiotics and antibiotic resistance, which can pass and spread to humans. There is a potential for overuse of antibiotics to represent the greatest threat to human health of almost anything else on the horizon. This is a priority area for the Government. We have been working extremely hard to reduce antibiotic use in this country and have succeeded in doing so, although there is more to do. We need to ensure that the same happens elsewhere.

Could my noble friend clear my muddled mind? Is it true that there is not a shred of evidence that washing chicken in chlorine is harming US consumers? Is it not true that here in the UK we wash fruit and vegetables in chlorine, as well as our kids in swimming pools? Is it not true that we put chlorine in our drinking water to keep us healthy? Surely Sherlock Holmes would conclude that this commotion is being pushed largely by those who have a political rather than scientific objective. They want consumers and taxpayers to pay for it. Am I anywhere near the target?

With respect, I disagree with my noble friend. There are many reasons to be concerned about the use of chlorine to wash chicken carcasses. One concern that has been raised and which I hinted at earlier is the process that necessitates the use of chlorine. In this country, our legislative approach requires the rearing of animals in such a way that they do not at the time of slaughter need to be washed down with chlorine to make them safe. The process matters as much as the outcome. That is the approach used in this country and across the European Union. Where produce in the United States meets a standard that is vaguely comparable with our own, we would be very keen to encourage and facilitate trade between our two countries for all the obvious reasons.

Does the Minister agree that we need to push back against EU propaganda designed to frustrate our deal with the USA? The global food security index 2020, which is based on quality, affordability and availability, places the USA at number three in the world, with the UK at number 17 and many European states much lower down. It is Europe that saw the scandals of horsemeat, cooking oil, and tainted Perrier, Coca-Cola, eggs and baby milk because it is all regulation and no enforcement. Will he agree that US food standards are at least as good, if not superior, to our own?

On some areas I agree very strongly with the noble Baroness. As a champion of free trade, the Government absolutely believe that an ambitious free trade agreement is in both the UK’s and the US’s interests. It will help our economies bounce back following the economic challenges imposed on us by coronavirus. A UK-US free trade agreement will strengthen the economic relationship with what is, let us remember, our largest bilateral trading partner and create opportunities throughout the economy. For example, an agreement with the US could remove tariffs on British beef of up to 26%, which would be worth an enormous amount to our farmers. A free trade agreement could remove the 17% tariff on Cheddar cheese, for example. If a free trade agreement enabled just a 10% increase in exports to the US, that would result in an estimated £90,000 for the average cheese producer. The benefits are very obvious and we are passionately in favour of free trade. However, on standards, it is important that the imports that come into this country do not undercut unfairly our own producers, who are required to produce their food to very high standards in terms of the environment, health and animal welfare.

My Lords, does the Minister recall mad cow disease and when Edwina Currie resigned over the salmonella outbreak? That was in the days when Ministers resigned when they made a mistake. Will he confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, and the whole House that chlorine washing chicken hides the bacteria? If the US trade deal goes ahead, what measures will be introduced to ensure the British public are kept safe from any of these threats from the United States?

As has been pointed out many times, we have already legislated by the withdrawal Act against artificial growth hormones and decontaminating poultry carcasses with chlorine. If we were to change that it would require legislation to be brought before Parliament. I have no doubt at all that Parliament would choose not to relax those regulations, and in my view rightly so. The Government have committed, as we did in our manifesto before the election, to ensuring that our high animal welfare and environmental standards are not undermined through the pursuit of free trade agreements.

My Lords, as the Minister said, antimicrobial resistance is an exceptionally dangerous global risk. Given the size of the US economy compared with ours, and without the power of being an EU member, how does he think we can tackle this global challenge while seeking a trade deal with the United States?

There is without a doubt growing concern globally about overuse of antibiotics. I believe that more than half of all antibiotics in the United States are used on farms, in many cases to keep animals alive that would otherwise not survive the conditions in which they are reared. The same has been true for many years across the European Union, including in the United Kingdom, where we have also been guilty of massive overuse of antibiotics in agriculture. We have taken great strides, working with the industry, to reduce the amount of antibiotics used in agriculture. The same is true across some countries in the European Union, but not all. Global awareness is growing. I believe that coronavirus has lowered our collective tolerance for risk. The noble Baroness is absolutely right that this should be top of the health agenda.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his replies and for acknowledging that it is not only human health which concerns people, but the welfare aspects of the methods of keeping chickens and other animals and rearing beef. Can he again confirm that it will be a red line for the whole of the Government in any free trade negotiations with the United States that we do not change our standards? When we have completed those negotiations, will he also take on board that we need a robust statement on labelling so that customers know the methods of rearing and slaughter and can choose whether to buy?

The Government are looking very closely at labelling. It is a complex issue, but we are making progress and will be coming forward with something shortly. On standards, it is not so much that standards should not change but that we should always seek to improve the outcomes from an environmental health and animal welfare perspective. That could mean improving, changing or even streamlining regulations. We know that agriculture will be a tricky area, as it always is in free trade agreements, but we uphold very high food safety and animal welfare standards and we will not allow imports to undermine those standards. Our manifesto is clear that in all our trade negotiations, we will maintain our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards and we will hold firm in trade negotiations. That position has been reiterated time and again by the Government, not just by the department on whose behalf I am speaking today.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. I repeat the request that questions and ministerial answers be kept brief.