By George Warren
While Brexit negotiations continue, Liam Fox, Secretary of State for International Trade, went to the United States in July to gauge appetite for a new trade deal after the United Kingdom leaves the European Union. However, the discussed plans have quickly come under intense public scrutiny – due to chicken! More specifically, the potential for relaxed terms to sell chlorinated chicken in the UK, a product previously banned from the UK market, have raised fears and spawned much negative attention.
The chlorination of chicken involves washing chicken carcasses in chlorine solution to disinfect them from pathogens. While being an accepted method in the US, the EU has banned this practice despite EFSA (2005)’s claim that the practice was not harmful to human health. Due to these diverging procedures, the import of US poultry products into the EU has been banned since 1997. This is in part a result of the EU’s precautionary regulatory practices and ‘farm to fork’ principle (European Commission, 2004). Expert advice to relax this precaution on chlorinated chicken was raised both during the negotiations over the failed Transatlantic Trade Partnership (TTIP), and now again in the post-Brexit trade deal between the US and UK. Both times, this advice has met large public opposition. But why is there this disconnect between expert advice and public opinion?
It is well known in public perception research, dating back to Fischhoff et al. (1978) and earlier, that expert assessment often diverges from public risk understandings. In addition, previous experience of food scandals, including the BSE crisis and the 2013 horse meat scandal, has made food safety a sensitive issue and has reduced the British public’s trust in regulators (Löfstedt, 2006; Barnett et al., 2016). Specifically, the technical nature of modern food processes such as the chlorine washing process has been found to heighten public perceptions of hazard from specific food products (Frewer et al., 2013). This has resulted in a public more prone to perceive food risks as inherent hazards to their health, and thus more vigilant to specific characteristics of the food-making process (Kaptan, Fischer and Frewer, 2017).
So, while the UK’s post-Brexit negotiations could disconnect UK food regulation from EU legislation, it is unclear to what extent this direction is shared by the public. We can only assume that post-Brexit trade deals will to some degree change the contents of our food shelves. It is, however, the content of the public response and consumer baskets that remain uncertain.
Do you think the chlorinated chicken issue is just the first of a recurring theme in future trade deals post-Brexit? If so, can public response and consumer power influence those deals? Please comment below.
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