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Which? survey highlights public concern over import standards

25th Jun 2020 / By Alistair Driver

A survey by consumer champion Which? has highlighted public concern over import standards in future trade deals, including fears food produced using methods banned in the UK could be served in schools and hospitals. 

WhichThe survey of more than 2,000 people showed 95% believe it is important for the UK to maintain existing food standards, including a ban on chlorine-washed chicken, meat from animals treated with growth hormones or antibiotics and many pesticides commonly used in US food production. 

Around three-quarters said they were opposed to importing food produced using these methods - a response that was consistent across all socio-economic groups.

Only one in 10 (11%) from less affluent households said food from countries with lower standards should be allowed in the UK, in comparison with one in six (16%) from more affluent households.

Meanwhile, 86% were concerned weakening UK food standards as part of a trade deal could lead to products that are currently banned being served in schools, hospitals and restaurants. In these settings, pupils, patients and customers may have little information or choice about the food they eat, Which? said.

Around 80% people said they would be uncomfortable eating beef produced using growth hormones or meat from healthy farm animals given antibiotics to boost their growth (77%), while 73% would be uncomfortable eating chlorine-washed chicken. Public opposition to these foods has been consistently at these levels since Which? first asked consumers for their views more than two years ago.

  • A petition by Which? on the subject is nearing 200,000 signatures
  • To see how the NPA set up a Financial Times article on a how the pig sector would be affected by a US-UK trade deal, click here 

The consumer champion said the findings dispel the myth that there is an appetite in the UK for foods produced to lower standards than our own. 

Despite repeated assurances to protect food standards, Which? said it was concerned that the government is preparing to trade away two decades of progress on food safety and standards to secure a trade deal with the US.

With talks over a UK-US trade deal at a critical stage and negotiations with other countries picking up pace, its said the finding reinforces its calls for the government to heed consumers’ concerns about lowering standards and put into law its commitment to maintaining food standards. 

While some advocates of opening up UK markets to these products have said consumers should be free to choose or reject them as long as they are clearly labelled, a clear majority said food produced to US standards such as chlorinated chicken (63%) and hormone-treated beef (61%) should not be allowed in the UK even if labelled.

Which? said it was also concerned by a push from the US agriculture lobby to weaken UK labelling regulations as part of a deal, which could make it more difficult for consumers to make informed choices about the food they buy.  

Sue Davies, Head of Consumer Protection and Food Policy at Which?, said: “People in Britain - whether rich or poor - are absolutely united in their opposition to lowering food standards and allowing imports of products like chlorine-washed chicken or hormone-treated beef into our supermarkets, schools and hospitals. 

“Worryingly, the current status of food standards in UK law could easily be changed with limited Parliamentary scrutiny. It would be far too easy to permit imports of chlorinated chicken, hormone-treated beef or other lower standard products at any stage, which is why the weakening of government assurances on food standards in recent weeks has been so troubling." 

“Food standards in the UK must not be compromised by any trade deal that would betray decades of progress on food safety, quality and animal welfare.

“The government must legislate to protect food standards in the Trade Bill or Agriculture Bill to reassure consumers and send a positive message that Britain wants to strike ambitious trade deals that enhance food standards worldwide.”