More than four fifths of people are concerned about laws on meat quality standards being relaxed so trade deals can be secured with the United States and other countries, according to Unison, a union in the United Kingdom.

Unison commissioned a survey amid reports about imports of chicken washed in chlorine or lactic acid as part of a U.S. deal. This practice is banned in EU countries.

Almost half of respondents said they were extremely concerned and a third said they were quite concerned. The poll by Savanta ComRes surveyed 2,015 British adults from Jan. 24 to 27, 2020.

Just over half believe government regulations for meat quality standards should be tightened following the U.K.’s departure from the EU. A third said the U.K. should maintain its current laws and just 3 percent said rules should be relaxed. Only 12 percent thought a relaxation of quality standards as a result of post-Brexit trade deals would give them no cause for concern.

The poll also found most people would lose confidence in safety of meat if the government were to privatize regulation of the industry instead of independent inspections by meat hygiene inspectors and vets employed by the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

Meat hygiene inspectors and vets currently oversee the checking of animals before and after slaughter to ensure contaminated meat doesn’t enter the food chain. More than four fifths of people surveyed believe it should be compulsory for meat safety and slaughterhouse standards to be assessed by independent inspectors.

Two-thirds said independent, government inspections are the best way to ensure meat is safe and disease-free. Just 9 percent think inspections by private firms are sufficient, while 8 percent believe slaughterhouses should be able to regulate themselves.

Slightly more than half said they would be less confident about the quality of meat if private firms inspected abattoirs. Almost two thirds said they’d have less confidence if slaughterhouses monitored their own production processes.

Public safety and confidence at stake
Dave Prentis, Unison general secretary, said public safety and confidence in food is at stake when discussing trade deals.

“Cozying up to the U.S. president shouldn’t mean dropping standards by accepting meat with poor hygiene, which has been given a blast of bleach or acid to gloss over its murky past,” he said.

“The best way to ensure what we consume is fit for purpose is to have independent inspections. We shouldn’t be putting checks in the hands of the meat producers themselves. Brexit should mean the U.K.’s current high standards are maintained or improved – not the introduction of bargain-basement, third-rate standards.”

Reduced funding has meant councils around the U.K. have scaled back safety inspections and made redundancies, according to Unison.

When asked about private inspections for restaurants and takeaways, which are currently done by local councils, more than half said private inspections would make them less confident about food safety and only around one in six would be more confident.

Environment Secretary George Eustice has said current bans on chlorine washed chicken and hormone-treated beef remain in place. He added that while new trading opportunities must be explored, this will not mean a dilution of standards.

A government spokesperson said: “We have repeatedly been clear that we will uphold our high environmental, food safety and animal welfare standards outside the EU. The government will stand firm in trade negotiations to ensure our future trade deals live up to the values of farmers and consumers across the U.K.”

Trade and consumer group reaction
The British Poultry Council (BPC) said there is a risk of watered down British food standards and a two-tier food system with the less well-off forced to accept lower standards.

Richard Griffiths, BPC chief executive, said British producers don’t dip their chicken carcass in chemicals to clean up at the end or take shortcuts in producing food.

“It’s government’s duty to ensure that production standards of imported food meet British standards as a condition of entry. If food produced to lower standards is allowed to enter the British market, it will create a two-tier food system, in which only the affluent can afford to eat British food grown to British standards.”

Sue Davies, head of consumer protection and food policy at consumer watchdog Which?, said its research has shown consumers value the U.K.’s high food standards and most believe food produced to a lower standard should not be available.

“It is vital that the nation’s health is not used as a bargaining chip in negotiations for future trade deals, so the government must legislate to prevent imports produced to lower standards, such as chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef, from entering the U.K.”

Kath Dalmeny, chief executive of the Sustain food and farming alliance, said the U.K. should not drop standards to please new trading partners.

“Consumers have repeatedly said they do not want hormone- injected, chlorine- or acid-washed, antibiotic-intensive food. These processes often mask filthy production methods and terrible animal welfare and worker conditions.”

The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) said the government must not put food and environmental standards up for negotiation during trade talks.

Anne Godfrey, chief executive at CIEH, said it was concerned by rumors the government was backtracking on the U.K.’s food and environmental standards.

“Since the negotiations around the U.K.’s exit from the European Union began, we have been heartened by the number of apparent commitments the government has made to ensuring that our country is a world leader on these standards. Now that the U.K. has left the EU we must look to maintain and enhance our food and environmental standards, helping to improve the health of the nation.”

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