Fears about post-Brexit food safety resurfaced after it emerged US farmers could be using more than twice the antibiotic-per-animal of their UK counterparts.
New research by Sustain, the food and farming alliance, shared exclusively with HuffPost UK, underlines major concerns about food standards should Britain strike a trade deal with America.
US farmers and meat processors routinely use antibiotics, chlorine rinses and irradiation to reduce food-poisoning bugs in meat, Sustain said.
An analysis of antibiotic: livestock ratio using official statistics also revealed American farmers were now using at least double the amount of the UK’s agricultural industry.
Medical chiefs have demanded an urgent clamp-down on overuse of antibiotics, fearing resistance to their effects could build to such a level, they “may be lost” as a drug to treat infection.
Leading economist Jim O’Neill, who is leading the Government-commissioned Anti-Microbial Review, called the overuse of antibiotics in animals “a threat to human health” in 2015, and has called for farmers across the globe to dramatically cut the level used in agriculture.
Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, has previously sparked fears about what a US-UK trade deal on food would entail, telling MPs: “There are no health reasons why you couldn’t eat chickens that have been washed in chlorinated water.”
He has since admitted “British consumers wouldn’t stand for” a drop in food standards, but the US Government has insisted the UK will have to accept US meat standards if it wants a deal.
Kath Dalmeny, Chief Executive of Sustain, said: “When US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told the CBI that the UK would have to accept US meat standards, I was horrified. Mass-produced American chicken may seem cheap, but it comes at a gigantic cost to our health, animals and workers.
“British food and farming industries have started to take action on the critically important issue of overuse of antibiotics in farming. We simply cannot afford to let our trade negotiators sweep such progress aside by flooding our market with cut-price US chicken raised with routine antibiotic use.
“If antibiotics lose their efficacy through over-use in medicine and farming, we will return to an era when millions of lives could be lost every year to simple infections.
“All food and trade policy must reinforce international efforts to reduce antibiotic use, not create new markets for farmers – such as those in the US – who are using much more than they should.”
Cóilín Nunan, scientific adviser to the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, said the preventative use of antibiotics on animals was being stamped out in the EU.
He said: “We need to consider what pressure UK regulators will come under - and what farming practices we may be supporting internationally – as a result of international trade deals. Many European countries, including the UK, are starting to phase out routine preventative use and to significantly cut overall
“There is even the real possibility of an EU-wide ban in routine preventative use in the next few years. In contrast, the United States still has no serious plans to deal with antibiotic abuse in farming, and use is increasing every year.
“Antimicrobial-resistant bacteria are no respecters of country borders.
Rather than the UK adopting US standards, we need to call on the US to show some leadership on reducing the use of antibiotics in animals through improvements in production systems and animal husbandry. This is in everyone’s interests.”
Jo Swinson MP, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats and supporter of the pro-single market campaign group Open Britain, said: “We in Britain should be proud of the high standards of food safety we have achieved through our membership of the European Union. But in their desperation to do a trade deal with Trump’s America, the Government seem prepared to bargain away those standards for nothing.
“A trade deal with the US brokered by Dr Fox could see our market flooded with potentially unsafe chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-injected beef, not to mention dangerous use of antibiotics in agriculture.
“The Government’s priority has to be protecting our trade with the European Union, which is by far our greatest trading partner and does not require us to compromise our standards. Nobody voted in the referendum to undermine food safety – if Brexit threatens to do just that, voters have the right to keep an open mind.”
A Department for International Trade spokesman said: “We are committed to a mutually beneficial economic trading arrangement with the US.
“We have been clear that the UK will maintain its own high food safety, animal welfare and environmental protection standards in future trade agreements.”