US chicken

UK to US: We don’t want your chickens

It's an argument about a lot more than poultry

Michael Gove, the UK environment secretary, has said that any trade deal with the US should not include US chicken.

Yep, apparently the UK has an absolute red line: American chickens. The UK plays by a set of EU rules over animal welfare – and part of that is a ban on chlorine-washed chickens. And although the UK might be leaving the EU, that doesn't mean it's leaving its chicken principles behind.

The funny thing about this whole chickens story is that nobody actually really needs to talk about it now, it's all based on hypotheticals. The UK and the US haven't reached a deal, and they haven't discussed chickens. But it's all tied up in some big issues the UK's got some serious angst over at the moment: who it's going to trade with after Brexit, and which EU rules its going to keep.

So why wash chickens in chlorine in the first place? Manufacturers say washing chickens in chlorine makes them safer to eat, and reduces the chance of infection. Critics (like the EU) say it increases the chance of infection – abattoirs would be encouraged to rely on it in the place of good safety standards, and it could make food processing plants more careless. 

It's about more than just chickens

But the chickens thing plays into two big questions hanging over the UK at the moment. The first is what it’s going to do about all the rules the EU sets once it leaves. Something called the Great Repeal Bill will put all the EU rules the UK wants to keep into UK law – but that whole process is really complicated.

The UK has got to decide which EU laws it likes and which ones it wants to get rid of. At the moment, the EU is responsible for a lot of the ‘regulations’ that control what UK companies can and can’t do around issues like workers rights, for example, or the environment and animal welfare. The idea that the UK isn't in control of its own laws and is restricted by EU regulation was a big factor in the Brexit decision. But Michael Gove was pretty straight up about the fact that he thinks the UK should stick to its (or the EU's) principles on the environment and animal welfare, which means no chlorine chickens.

But there’s another big issue at stake. The UK is trying to cosy up to other countries (including the US), to make sure it has lots of places that it can buy goods from and sell goods to once it leaves the EU. The US has a very different position on lots of those EU laws.

When it comes to food and pharmaceuticals, for example, there’s a lot of stuff that’s banned in the UK and other EU countries, but judged to be safe in the US. The yellow dye used in US sold mac&cheese? The EU says it’s dangerous.

In fact, the US approach to is a lot more relaxed in general. Donald Trump, the current US president, actively thinks regulation is bad for businesses. He’s doing what he can to remove a lot of the laws that what companies can and can't do on environmental grounds, for example.

But, for the sake of the trade deal, Liam Fox seems to think the UK could relax some of its rules to make things simpler. And fine, he might object to the media’s obsession with chickens – but at some point not too far down the line, the UK is going to have to decide these things, and it’s probably going to be about a lot more than poultry.

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