Britain has some of the world’s best food safety regulations. But it’s important to remember that when it comes to food scares and crises – from salmonella in eggs to listeria in cheese – we have had a chequered past.
It took an extraordinary national effort to reach the enviable position we now hold, with laws protecting the consumer, the farmer and our animals. We must not betray them now.
Perhaps the best illustration of the issue we face comes from an earlier crisis when there were public fears over meat safety and politicians sacrificed food standards for trade, amid grave concerns over the potential collapse of Britain’s farming industry.
It is important to remember that, while Britain has the best food safety regulations in the world, we have had some scares in the past, including salmonella
The BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) scandal of the late 1980s and 1990s eventually led to a food safety revolution.
This was an era when political decisions about food were dominated by business interests and when concern for human health seemed an afterthought.
Perhaps it was no surprise when, in 1987, this frightening disease emerged in cattle. From the earliest stages, Which? called for new controls – such as changes to feeding practices – but we were brushed aside.
Such was the desperation that the ‘mad cow’ disease scare should not affect sales that, as late as 1990, Agriculture Minister John Gummer was photographed feeding his four-year-old daughter a burger.
The message of this alarming stunt? British beef is safe, nothing to see here.
It created the impression of a Government that thought sales and exports came before public health
So when Health Secretary Stephen Dorrell announced on March 20, 1996, that BSE was the most likely explanation for a new form of the cruel Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (the human form of mad cow disease) it was a chilling moment.
More than 170 people died after eating infected beef. Many were in their 20s and 30s, cut down in their prime. About 4.4million cattle were destroyed. The progress we have made since then is remarkable.
Despite recent worries over 'mad cow' disease, British beef has proved to be safe following inquiries into UK food safety
After campaigning by Which? the Food Standards Agency (FSA) was set up, with a mission to protect public health and other consumer interests. Its board and scientific committees meet in public and publish their advice to Ministers.
The agency took responsibility for checks in slaughterhouses and tightening controls on how they operated. New laws – embraced by British farmers – were brought in to govern animal feed, traceability and food hygiene.
Now, leaving the EU has given us the impetus to scrap the wasteful and inefficient Common Agricultural Policy and replace it with a farming and food policy that serves the nation’s health needs.
Two decades after the Government’s review into the BSE crisis was published, we have a safe food supply that people trust.
Yet all this could be put at risk if the US gets its way in trade talks, throwing open the doors to chlorine-washed chicken, hormone-pumped beef, antibiotic growth-promoters and foods packed with hidden fat, salt and sugar.
Today is World Food Safety Day, and with trade negotiations with the US at a crucial stage, it is the perfect time to remember that when hard politics and food safety standards intertwine, we must be extremely wary.
Looking across the Atlantic is like taking a step back to an era when neglecting food safety and putting business interests first led to catastrophic consequences for the economy and human health.
In the US, a lack of effective animal welfare and food safety laws result in shockingly high rates of food-borne illness.
The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year about one in six Americans (around 50 million people) get sick from the food they eat. In the UK, the latest FSA estimates (for 2018) suggest there were 2.4 million food-borne disease cases, affecting about one in 28 people.
The US ambassador to Britain, Woody Johnson, described chlorine-washed chicken as ‘a public safety no-brainer’. But it is not just the chlorine that should concern us.
Washing birds in chemicals is an attempt to make up for rampant safety problems throughout the food production process in the US. In any case, the chlorine can be ineffective, as alarmingly common outbreaks of salmonella show.
Chicken sold in the UK is subject to rules and monitoring throughout its journey from the farm to our shopping bags, which simply aren’t replicated in the US but help prevent salmonella and campylobacter, both of which cause food poisoning but can also prove fatal.
If the UK decide to change their food health standards, it could see a rise in washing chickens with chemicals such as chlorine
There is also concern that with chlorine-washed chicken imports, UK welfare standards could be at risk as our farmers try to compete by cutting corners. Or face going out of business.
If the US thinks that British shoppers will stomach such unhealthy and inhuman conditions, they are mistaken. Polls show that food standards are a deal-breaker for consumers.
The Government has promised to protect food standards, but these commitments must be enshrined in law so consumers can have confidence that they won’t be traded away. As it stands, the approach of Ministers still falls woefully short of what we need.
For all the divisions over Brexit, when it comes to food standards and attitudes to US production methods, the British people are remarkably united.
Wherever they live, whether they shop in Waitrose or Lidl, people want good quality food made by British producers where possible – and they will not accept any reduction of food safety standards in trade deals.
With negotiations going on with the US over a post-Brexit trade deal, the British people will not accept a reduction in food quality standards
Research by Which? has found that 79 per cent of people would be uncomfortable eating beef produced using growth hormones, while 72 per cent felt the same about chlorine-treated chicken.
About three quarters said it is important that dairy products come from the UK, with 72 per cent wanting British meat products. And 71 per cent say they wouldn’t buy food produced to lower standards even if it was cheaper, a response that was consistent across all socio-economic groups.
To its credit, the Government seems to recognise these findings and we have seen repeated reassurances from Ministers that environmental protection, animal welfare and food safety standards will not be undermined in trade talks. But it is a worry that these commitments have so far not been included in the Agriculture or Trade Bills.
Which? is willing to work with Ministers on amendments that will achieve the aims we all agree on – reassuring millions of consumers about the food they eat and upholding the high standards of British farmers.
Putting these commitments into law would send a clear, positive message to our world trading partners.
It would show that we welcome the opportunity to strike ambitious trade deals, providing consumers with greater choice and more competitive prices.
But this means working together in a ‘race to the top’ on standards – particularly on food production.
The British people must decide on the safety and standards for the food they eat.
These vital and hard-won protections must not be used as a bargaining chip.