Why did the chlorinated chicken cross the Atlantic?
It didn’t. (Much to the annoyance of US poultry farmers.)
EU rules currently ban the use of anti-microbial (“chlorine”) washes on chicken carcasses; a technique that is relied on by producers across the US. The United States Trade Representative lists the ban as one of the biggest non-tariff barriers facing US producers attempting to export to the EU.
“Chlorine chicken” became a totemic issue for protesters opposed to the proposed EU-US free trade agreement, TTIP, and is often used as a visceral metaphor for the deal itself.
It was therefore only a matter of time before the chicken issue popped up again in the context of post-Brexit UK-US trade talks. And pop up it did, following Trade Secretary Liam Fox’s visit to the States and suggestion that the UK could reconsider the ban post-Brexit. His words, and a report by the Adam Smith Institute, led to a week of verbal back-and-forth in the British media, Twitter and Cabinet over the proposition’s palatability.
Yet, in the larger scheme of Brexit, whether chlorine chicken is safe or not is a side-issue. It’s a debate that has raged for years and you can make your own mind up on where you stand.
The issue that should instead be front of mind is what divergence from the existing EU regime would mean in practice? What are the trade-offs? What are the consequences?
While removing the ban would indeed make it easier for the UK to negotiate a trade deal with the US, and potentially lead to marginally cheaper chicken on our supermarket shelves, it would also mean all UK exports of animal origin to the EU facing new, arduous, entry checks. It would mean border inspection posts on the Irish border.
Because when it comes to its food and plant hygiene (SPS) and veterinary regime, particularly on products of animal origin, the EU doesn’t mess around. You either follow its rules and procedures, including for imports from third-countries, or producers from your territory face checks upon entry.
And indeed, the UK government (or at least the civil servant who slipped it into a footnote) recognise this: its position paper on Ireland and Brexit put forward the EU-Switzerland model as one the UK could replicate in order to avoid the need for checks on the Irish border.
This would be a Switzerland that has, to all extents and purposes, near fully harmonised its SPS and veterinary regime with that of the EU. A Switzerland that has registered its own EU approved Border Inspection Posts, through which all third-country imports of animal origin must enter, in an appendix of the EU-Switzerland Agriculture Agreement. A Switzerland that has sacrificed its own decision making autonomy so as to ensure its agricultural exporters face no border checks when selling to their most important trading partner, the EU.
A Switzerland that has no flexibility to change its mind on chlorine chicken.
Because that’s what it takes. Flexibility is costly. And it is far from clear that slightly cheaper chicken is worth a hard Irish border, worth Welsh sheep farmers having to helicopter their produce into France (Calais isn’t currently an EU approved border inspection post able to deal with third-country imports of animal origin), or worth the UK having to introduce an entirely new third-country authorisation and auditing regime.
Binary choices such as this don’t just apply to food; areas such as chemicals and medicine come with similar conundrums. In a world of difficult trade-offs, with the complexities of Brexit becoming increasingly apparent by the day, careless words and ill-considered statements of regulatory intent are not a commodity the UK can afford to trade in.