What does a US-UK trade deal mean for the food industry and our health?

Illustration by Sam Wilson

As the UK is beginning to start trade deal negotiations with the US, many people have been spamming social media with why we must protect the food standards we have in the UK and why we need to make our government listen to advice on maintaining the standards we have.

Two of the most controversial issues with food production in the US which we do not use in the UK are chlorinated chicken and the use of hormones in beef production. While they may be fine for the US, there are several things to consider as these changes may potentially roll out in the UK.

  1. If we don’t use hormones in our beef production now then why do we need to use them in future?

2. The use of chlorinated chicken is currently banned in the UK. Why is this?

3. What would it mean for our health and immune systems?

Well, to address the first question we have to understand that the amount used in beef production is arguably smaller than the levels we produce naturally in our bodies. However there is still evidence that small amounts of hormones can disrupt processes in the body. Many studies into the use of hormones in food production have also found that a number of those used in US meat and dairy production are known to be carcinogenic to humans. So perhaps another question we should be asking is: “If hormones are to be used in food production how are they to be controlled or prohibited?” Growth hormones in beef production have also been linked to affecting prepubescent children, with some evidence suggesting it may have an effect on children entering early puberty. Although, there are other factors that can affect this.

In regard to the second question, the reason chlorinated chicken has been banned in the UK was due to EU experts arguing that the process introduced poor hygiene along the supply chain. So, there is already potential that the process could bring up other problems that the UK does not currently have to face. In addition to this, research into chlorine washing practices found that the process does not necessarily wash away all pathogens found on food and dangerously can in some cases make pathogens undetectable (more on this here).

From this information perhaps it is already fairly obvious to understand what this could mean for our health. Should we really consider accepting different food standards, when it is believed that in the US it is approximately seven times more likely to get food poisoning than in the UK?

Another consideration which has been somewhat triggered by me embarking on a FutureLearn course about antimicrobial resistance is the use of antibiotics in food production. While globally the use of antibiotics in agriculture and livestock is continuously being monitored as best it can, my question is: With the UK having a 5 year plan to reduce risks of AMR, will the use of antibiotics be tightly monitored as well? The overuse and misuse of antibiotics through prescriptions amongst other reasons has been a topic of significant importance for those in medicine and science. The overuse of antibiotics in food production can have a huge effect on the risks of AMR cases and is something we must think about especially for young children who are developing immune responses as they grow up.

The trade deal negotiations could potentially have an adverse effect on UK farmers and there have been many disgruntled opinions from the National Farmers Union at the moment prompting the government to consider maintaining our UK food and safety standards. The trade deal between the US and the UK has previously been of some concern to those in agriculture and farming as there has been continuous worry that imported food would greatly compete with UK produce in our supermarkets. However, the UK over the years has also seen the dairy industry export more products than they import and so in someways this could be beneficial to certain farmers. On the other hand, many members of the public have expressed concern over eating and buying food that has been washed with chlorine or that contains growth hormones. With this being said, if the government were to not listen to public opinion on the matter it could affect sales of meat and other produce from UK farms.

Personally, I am all for maintaining the food standards we have already but of course it all comes down to the decisions that end up being negotiated. While also taking into consideration; how we react to a trade deal weighing in favour of US food standards, the manner in which we ensure safety for ourselves in terms of limiting risks to our health (especially since having to deal with COVID-19) and how we can support the nation’s farmers at the same time.

If you have any food for thought on the matter, let us know or share your opinions using the hashtag #infectiousbiouk on social media.