October 21, 2020

Government urged not to sell out UK food workers as ‘chlorinated chicken threatens jobs’, warns Unite

Chlorinated chicken as part of a post-Brexit free trade deal with the US is ‘the thin end of the wedge’ that could impact on public health and threaten thousands of jobs in the UK food processing industry.

Unite, Britain and Ireland’s largest union, today (Thursday 15 August) called for the government to give a clear statement that it won’t sell out the estimated 450,000 workers directly employed by the UK food industry in any free trade deal with US president Trump.

The call from Unite, which has thousands of members working in the food processing and agriculture sectors, comes in the wake an interview with Zippy Duvall, head of the American Farm Bureau, who said a deal on chlorinated chicken will be an essential part of any transatlantic trade agreement.

The European Union (EU) has banned washing chicken with chlorine since 1997 over food safety concerns. The EU’s concern is not the consumption of chlorine itself, but that such a practice could mask poor hygiene standards, such as dirty abattoirs.

Unite is also concerned about a tariff regime after a no deal Brexit which could see 90% of imports being tariff free, while UK exporters still face paying stiff tariffs on their products.

The food sector in Northern Ireland would be particularly hard hit by a no deal Brexit – Moy Park is the largest private sector employer with 8,000 workers dealing with chicken processing. Dunbia employs more than 4,800 in beef and lamb processing. The Kerry Group has five sites in Northern Ireland focussing on pork and diary production.   

Unite national officer for food, drink and agricultural Bev Clarkson said: “Unite is demanding answers from the government and we want a clear statement from Theresa Villiers, secretary of state for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, that she will not sell out our food workers in any deal with Trump.

“We also have concerns that some Trump backers in the US have their eyes on the UK meat processing industry.  

“The debate over chlorinated chicken is the tip of the iceberg of what could happen with a post-Brexit no deal scenario when Tory ministers go to Washington with a begging bowl to agree a one-sided free trade agreement with the Trump administration.

“There is a good reason why the EU banned chlorinated chicken in the late 1990s – it feared it could mask poor hygiene standards.

“We believe that public health standards could be compromised if such chicken and also hormone enhanced US beef were allowed to be sold in the UK.

“Because of the threat of tariff free access for 90% of imports, this could drive down prices in the supermarkets, which, in turn, could lead to food processing plants in the UK shedding thousands of jobs.

“This is because it costs more to maintain food health standards in the UK  and processing food firms won’t be able to compete with cheaper US food with its light touch regulatory framework.

“This will lead to UK producers lowering their standards to compete. It would also hamper future trade relations with the EU, which would place heavier restrictions on any remaining poultry produce imported from the UK.

“Cheaper prices in the supermarkets may appear attractive in the short-term, but there will be a longer-term detrimental cost

“That is why this helter-skelter blinkered drive by prime minister Boris Johnson for a no deal Brexit on 31 October is so harmful for public health and the UK food processing sector.

“We will strongly campaign against this race to the bottom in the food sector, where thousands of people are employed on low pay – the economic future and livelihoods of many communities are at stake because of Johnson’s cavalier and reckless approach to Brexit.

“The UK is currently a world leader in this sector with high hygiene standards and excellent products that have a global market – from British beef and lamb to Scotch whisky.

“That’s why chlorinated chicken is the thin end of the wedge that has much wider ramifications for the public and UK economy.”