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Free trade food safety fantasies and the Tory agenda for the UK

UK food safety standards are at high risk as the Tory government of Boris Johnson prepares for post-Brexit deregulation.

In a speech on February 3, just days after the UK left the EU, PM Boris Johnson said “There are other issues where I think that I’ve heard a certain amount of hysterical … there is a sort of thing about as if American food was somehow inferior. I look at the Americans, they look pretty well nourished to me. And I don’t hear any of these critics of American food coming back from the United States and complaining … So let’s take some of the paranoia out of this argument.”

The Prime Minister’s casual disregard for facts is of a piece with the now-forgotten claim that exiting the EU would allow for up to GBP 350 million per week to be invested in the National Health Service.

Constant struggle has been needed to defend food safety standards in the EU from industry pressure, but EU and US food safety standards differ fundamentally, because they are based on opposed premises. In the US, food is presumed to be safe until proven otherwise. EU regulations are based on the precautionary principle. Before bringing a product to market, the manufacturer must demonstrate that it is safe. This approach saves lives.

According to US government figures, salmonella bacteria, a frequent cause of foodborne illness, cause about 1.35 million infections, 26,500 hospitalizations, and 420 deaths in the United States every year in a population of 327 million. In 2019, European authorities (using data from 2016) reported some 95,000 laboratory-confirmed cases, of which 134 were fatal. This is based on a population of 512 million, including the UK.

The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 6 Americans are sickened every year from foodborne diseases and 3,000 people die. The EU figures are significantly lower.

UK food policy, according to Johnson, will be “governed by science, not mumbo-jumbo”, and he has called for “liberating” the UK from rules restricting genetic modification technology.

A Tory trade deal with the US, then, would liberate the regulatory barriers to cheap, subsidized US food imports, including genetically modified grains and other foods, and replace EU-based food safety standards with significantly weaker rules at the expense of well-documented threats to worker and consumer health and safety and the environment. Chlorine-treated poultry, beef from cows raised on growth hormone, and GM grains addicted to massive applications of patented pesticides will be arriving on supermarket shelves with no labelling requirements…all in the name of a ‘science’ masking a corporate power grab.

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The IUF’s Trade Deals that Threaten Democracy explains the crucial link between food safety, worker, consumer and environmental protection and the deregulatory agenda promoted through the current trade and investment regime.

 

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