Professor Ian Boyd, retiring chief scientific adviser at the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), was on “thin ice” for suggesting that chlorinated chicken was acceptably safe, according to a new briefing from the Food Research Collaboration (FRC).
The FRC, an organisation that brings together academics from the University of Sussex, City University of London and Cardiff University, said that consumers could only choose what they actually want if they were adequately informed about the available options.
It said US chickens were not labelled as washed in chlorine, nor was US beef labelled as hormone-injected to speed the animals’ growth.
Professor Boyd’s remarks – made in an interview with Sky News on 29 August – could be interpreted as an early warning that the Government might be about to try to soften up the public to accept chemically washed food imports from the US, the FRC claimed.
The Government was keen to have a “trophy” trade deal to show to the British public post-Brexit, the FRC said. Food standards were already highly sensitive within early discussions with the US, it added.
Not Defra’s responsibility
In its briefing, the FRC said it was “odd” that Defra’s chief scientific adviser had chosen to speak on a subject that wasn’t his department’s responsibility.
It added that it was the Food Standards Agency (FSA) that should provide independent expert advice on food safety in the UK.
“Senior FSA officials have indicated informally that they think that neither US chlorinated chicken nor hormones-produced beef are acceptably safe,” the brief said.
“We hope this is not a sign that the FSA’s independence is being undermined. UK consumers need to be aware that if there is a no-deal Brexit, the UK will sever links with the EU-wide food safety systems and scientific advice through the European Food Safety Authority, and will have to rely increasingly on an under-resourced FSA.”
In the US, chlorine washing is used to disinfect meat, poultry fish and vegetables that emerges from production lines with less stringent hygiene standards than are required in the EU, the FRC claimed.
However, evidence showed that rather than preventing infections, the FRC suggested the process merely blocked the standard test method by which the presence of such bacteria should be revealed, with the bacteria remaining present on the food and able to cause serious and sometimes fatal food poisoning.
Evidence, which the FRC said was acknowledged by senior officials at the FSA, showed that rates of bacterial food poisoning in the US were far higher than in the UK, proving that foods were far less clean and safe in the US than they were in the UK.
Cutting antibiotics in meat
The briefing also argued that the overuse of antibiotics in the US was contributing to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, and their use should be cut.
Professor Tim Lang at the Centre for Food Policy said: “Professor Boyd’s statement may be an early sign that Westminster is trying to soften up the public for lower-standard food imports from the US.
“They are very keen to have a ‘trophy’ trade deal post-Brexit and the lowering of UK food safety and animal welfare standards is at stake. We cannot accept what is sure to lead to an unprecedented and radical decline in food quality standards.”
The FRC called for robust commitments to protecting food standards to be included in all legal agreements in any post-Brexit trade-related negotiations.
They also urged public health, consumer and environment organisations to combine efforts to prevent the undermining of high food standards in the UK.
Food Safety Briefing: register your interest now
The latest scientific advances on fighting pathogens in the food chain will be one of the areas covered in Food Manufacture’s Food Safety Briefing, which takes place online on 15 October at 3pm.
Food Safety Briefing: 2020 and beyond: a new era for food standards, is free-to-attend webinar sponsored by Reading Scientific Services Ltd (RSSL).
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Dr Roy Betts, head of microbiology at Campden BRI, will consider developments in rapid in-line testing, whole genome sequencing and how to deal with biofilms at plant level.
Other speakers confirmed include Dr Derek Watson from the University of Sunderland, who will be addressing food safety culture, and RSSL consultant Beverley Hirst, who will be looking at the challenges posed by allergens in the food chain.
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