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.

Climate change and Covid-19 in cahoots?

Illustration by Sam Wilson

While the days seem to merge into one and the length of time during this pandemic seems to grow longer than the 2 metres I stand from people as I wait in the queue at the shop to buy my essentials. The vast amount of information soaring through the web has been catapulting at an incredible pace, so much so that it is almost impossible to write posts on here about ‘corona news’ without the worry I’ll be writing something contradictory the very next day.

However, the thread of information shaping opinions online of how we should act after this is all over and discussions over coronavirus versus climate change all seem to be trending following a similar pattern. You see, as people continue to discuss research, vaccines and the origins of the Covid-19 virus it is only natural that issues such as climate change are brought into conversation. Climate change can have an impact on pandemics and transmission, the rate at which many diseases spread with ease has often come from travel. Well , if you think about the amount of air travel from East Asia across to Europe (including the airports travellers pass through on the way) and vice versus it was almost inevitable that a virus originating from the city of Wuhan made its way to countries such as Italy, France and of course, the UK.

Social distancing and isolation is obviously not a cure for viral pandemics. In fact, the slow of transmission was put in place to help with the unbearable additional weight the NHS is having to carry on its back due to our government’s response to the outbreak. Although, the more I am socially distanced and admittedly appreciating the hushed silence on the streets when I go for my walk or run of the day, something has become very apparent to me.

Venice has seen calmer, clearer water running through its canals. China has seen clearer skies and I have breathed in air that smells a little bit crisper than usual? It might deceptively appear as though the planet seems to be feeling better from the restricted human activity however, scientists and those with expertise in climate change research are saying this virus is a wake up call NOT an immediate long term solution for our climate. In fact almost all, if not the majority of expert opinions on the matter are drawing the conclusion that not only is the work being put in now important for dealing with the current situation but what we choose to do after this time is crucial, to not just how we deal with current and future outbreaks but also how we can help our planet to heal.

Overall, it could be argued that although disease outbreaks occur naturally around the world, our stubbornness or rather our arrogance to deal with our long term issues (climate change being a rather big one) can lead to the fate of our short term problems such as the current coronavirus pandemic. Air travel increasing rate of transmission, deforestation forcing animals to migrate allowing transmission from animals to humans, weather aiding the spread of waterborne infections, temperature changes allowing infectious agents to survive and grow and so on and so on.

So if you are sitting at home twiddling your thumbs wondering what else to do after exerting all your energy into the same routine you’ve developed over the last few days, perhaps it is time to address how your own actions now could help with climate change in addition to the current pandemic. Not only that but how those actions can be carried forward into the future after this situation is over and how you should tell all your friends that its cool because you’re saving the planet even though you can’t provide an immediate cure for a virus you may very well know nothing about (may have stretched that a bit far, but ….it is cool to save the planet).

In fact, climate activist Greta Thunberg (even if you are not a fan) made an important statement recently saying that climate change should be tackled along with coronavirus simultaneously, with the concern that amidst the chaos politicians would brush it under the rug. Obviously, there is some argument to this. Many would say that coronavirus is something that is (hopefully) short term and needs to be addressed urgently in comparison to climate change which is and has been a long term issue. I would say that climate change is a measure that should be addressed because it provides a level of risk in triggering outbreaks similar to the one we are currently witnessing. It’s like hiding an anthill under a rug and just exterminating them when they appear on top of the rug. I can only hope that if that were to happen the army of ants don’t return in anger, fire in their eyes and more alarming numbers.

At the end of it all, I believe its fair to say looking at climate change now, reflecting on where we are and how fast everything is speeding past us, a lot of this reflection can help in us making sense of where we go wrong and how we can do better to prevent or at least lower the risk of such events arising again or sooner than we predict them.

To those who are working like clockwork; from the medical staff to the researchers, the pharmacists, the shelf stackers and anyone else I have shamefully failed to mention , thank you for everything you are doing and continue to do for us all.

Pasta for dinner?= Fake news. Pigs to the rescue?= Possibly

After the World Health Organisation officially upgraded the current Coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak as pandemic, the UK has come under the largest rise in coronavirus cases in a single day, with our own region , Norfolk confirming 3 more cases. Although there has been a vast number of announcements telling everybody not to panic, that facemasks are not the most preventable measure, to not touch your face (as public health official Dr Sara Cody in California flawlessly showed us) and to wash your hands more frequently, I still found Tesco to be completely out of hand wash and pasta this afternoon.

Source: Washington Post, Youtube. 05 March 2020

In fact, the impact of the outbreak and escalation as a result of fake news has led to the NHS pointing everybody’s attention to a part of their website that is dedicated to debunking tabloid myths after announcing they are working with social media giants, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Google in tackling any further spread of nationwide paranoia (source: https://www.england.nhs.uk/2020/03/nhs-takes-action-against-coronavirus-fake-news-online/). To reassure everyone more , the NHS have plans already in place to try and expand testing to 10,000 people a day as opposed to 1,500.

While Italy seems to be in total lockdown, the UK has 460 positive cases and is still set on finding a way to control transmission. Considering the number of cases, 8 people have died and the mortality rate has been confirmed as low, with those that are at high risk of the comparable influenza virus most likely to contract Covid-19.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-51839106

While the NHS and W.H.O try their best to cover live news on the viral spread throughout the nation, local newspaper; Eastern Daily Press instead seem to be focussing on how persistent Norfolk is in tackling any signs of the virus.

The first story that understandably caught my eye was a report on the work of Norwich scientist, Professor George Lomonossoff. He has been concentrating his attention on a potential vaccine for Coronavirus in pigs, which if successful could form a great deal of knowledge on how to develop a vaccine for human cases. However, news that the virus can easily mutate has been confirmed as typical behaviour for the type of virus that causes Covid-19 and as a result could prove difficult when developing vaccines.

“The mutation rates make it difficult to catch, you are running to stand still. I hope that we can learn from what we are doing with coronavirus in pigs which could be applicable to the overall design of a vaccine against coronavirus in animals and also humans”

Source: Professor George Lomonossoff for Eastern Daily Press, 07 March 2020

Amidst all the warnings and the paranoia, the most important thing to take away from this is stay aware and take sensible precautions if you are considered to be in a high risk group.

Below you will find sites with information on Coronavirus (COVID-19) and how to protect yourselves as well as Q&A’s from W.H.O.

Source: video made by The World Health Organisation

Personally, given everything that has happened recently I believe there to be a lot more potential for a vaccine than we think and stocking up on pasta for the inevitable apocalypse is not going to stop you from contracting the virus nor help anyone else who is likely to contract it either. So, much like the face mask trend, raiding the shelves at your nearest supermarket should definitely be thrown out the window. We’re not going to run out of supplies that quickly anytime soon.

Look out for yourselves but look out for others too.

Some sources of information about Coronavirus:

https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/videos

https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/

https://www.gov.uk/government/topical-events/coronavirus-covid-19-uk-government-response