Busting the Project Fear health myths about a UK-US free trade deal

Busting the Project Fear health myths about a UK-US free trade deal

According to a recent article in the Financial Times, ministers have been warned that the UK’s efforts to strike a US trade deal after Brexit could “severely limit” Britain’s ability to negotiate a deal with both the EU and other third countries. 

The warning comes from a report written by the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) which suggests that US pressure on the UK to relax measures to protect animals, plants and humans from disease, pests and contaminants and to allow access to the UK market for US products, such as chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-fed beef, would violate EU sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) regulations. It said the EU would be concerned about non-compliant goods entering its Single Market which, in turn, could lead it to impose a hard border on the island of Ireland. It added:

“Any significant movement could have implications for our other [free-trade agreements] or export arrangements, which are based on existing standards…Weakening our SPS regime to accommodate one trade partner could irreparably damage our ability to maintain UK animal, plant and public health, and reduce trust in our exports.”

How scary is that? Perhaps Remainers are right after all – and that we should not only stay in the European Union, but be banned from visiting the US or indeed anywhere else outside the EU for the sake of our health.

Before taking such a drastic measure, should we not look for some evidence to support DEFRA’s assertions? Of course, we should – and very helpfully one of the commentators on the FT article – “luzhin” – pointed to the World Health Organisation study Global Estimates and Regional Comparisons of Food-borne Diseases.

And if you look at this study, DEFRA’s concerns about US food safety standards being lower than those in the EU are not borne out by the evidence. The study reports global food-borne disease incidence, mortality, and disease burden in terms of Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALYs), which measures how many illness years (per 100,000 population) are attributable to disease caused by food. The most frequent causes of food-borne illness are diarrhoeal disease agents, particularly norovirus and Campylobacter spp. The most frequent causes of food-borne deaths are Salmonella, Taenia solium, hepatitis A virus, and aflatoxin. 

It turns out that the region with the lowest DALY is the US, Canada and Cuba (denoted region AMR A) in the study. This region, dominated by the US, has a DALY of 35 per 100,000. All three European groups (EUR A, EUR B and EUR C) have DALYs of between 40 and 50 per 100,000. So the average US citizen is less at risk from food-borne disease than the average EU citizen. 

Using lab report data for Salmonella and Campylobacter, David Paton, Professor of Industrial Economics at Nottingham University Business School, reports incidences for the US and UK of 15 per 100,000 for both in the US and 17 and 108 per 100,000, respectively, in the UK. Again, lower rates in the US.

Washing chicken in chlorine to eliminate harmful bacteria is one of a number of anti-microbial washes permitted in the US as a pathogen reduction treatment. The most common rinses include trisodium phosphate, acidified sodium chlorite, chlorine dioxide and peroxyacids. These washes were banned by the EU’s European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) in 1997. The reason given was concerns about poor hygiene standards in the production process: “the use of antimicrobial solutions does not replace the need for good hygienic practices during processing of poultry carcasses, particularly during handling”. As a consequence, US chicken imports to the EU ceased. However, the EFSA accepted in 2005 that these washes posed “no safety concernover human exposure. Indeed, the chlorine washing of bagged salads is permitted in the EU.

Yet, far from being the guardian of the health of European consumers, the EFSA allows their food to be injected with potentially dangerous additives that are actually banned in the US. One example is the sweetener Aspartame – used in soft drinks and low-calorie sugar-free foods – which has been linked to increased rates of cancer. Other examples are E104 Quinoline Yellow, E122 Carmoisine and E124 Ponceau 4R which are synthetic dyes derived from coal tar and used in sweets and other foods, such as smoked haddock and scotch eggs. They can cause rashes and water retention in people allergic to aspirin, as well as hyperactivity in children. Erik Millstone, Professor of Science Policy at the University of Sussex, told the Daily Telegraph: “Serious avoidable risks are being taken with public health and if the public was well informed about it then they wouldn’t tolerate it”.

As luzhin points out, “complaints about US food safety standards from the EU are based on politics and protectionism rather than science or statistics”. Perhaps, it’s time the US government banned its citizens from visiting the EU on health grounds.

It is certainly time British civil servants ended the policy-based evidence making that is at the heart of their Project Fear campaign. 

This is because nothing in the DEFRA report prevents a UK-EU trade deal. Just because UK consumers buy US products with different standards from EU products does not prevent UK producers making products that meet EU standards. UK producers have to meet the standards set in all export markets that they sell into. Some might only produce products that meet the standard of their most profitable market, eschewing sales in other markets. Further, consumer labelling will provide UK consumers with a choice. If they prefer less expensive US goods, so long as they understand what they are buying, they should be free to do so. 

This is what free trade agreements are all about: increasing consumer choice and reducing the prices consumers pay. And not condemning cheaper products as automatically “inferior” just because more efficient producers can make them at lower prices.