A game of chicken

The return of the Westminster Agriculture Bill to the Commons in the next few days is a pivotal moment – for Brexit, for Scotland and in many ways for democracy. The latest Which? Poll out today shows 94% of people want to maintain high food standards and 77% would be uncomfortable eating chlorinated chicken.

Yet the UK Government is refusing to accept the Lords amendments which would ensure that the food we import meets the same standards on environment and animal welfare as the food we produce at home. 

There are two ways to maintain standards. Regulation is simple. If a product doesn’t meet our standards, it doesn’t get past Customs. These chickens were kept in cramped, dirty conditions? No thanks. This palm oil in this ice cream came from illegally cleared plantations? No thanks. We’ve no idea where these fish came from? No thanks.

Or we could let people choose. We don’t do that with children’s toys – there are no ‘this may poison your child’ warning labels. We don’t do that with with electrical equipment – we can’t opt in for one which only gives you a shock occasionally to save a quid or two. So why do it with food?

The Government argues that we can leave it to the market, because people will choose higher quality food. For those of us at the sharp end of food insecurity, the argument of “freedom to choose” is of course hard to swallow. And the impacts of it go beyond the consumers. Conservative peer Anne McIntosh reminded us how this argument works out in practice in last week’s House of Lords debate:

It appears that the Government are seriously considering allowing in these substandard products, as I would call them, but placing tariffs on them and labelling them. That is completely unacceptable… 

We could end up in a situation that the Minister… will remember only too well: the unilateral ban in this country on sow stalls and tethers. Yes, we had the red tractor system… but the consumers went out and voted with their feet. They read the label, but they looked at the price and bought the cheaper imports. I do not want to place our consumers in that difficult position, and I do not want to see family farms where I grew up, and which I represented for 18 years, go to the wall because the Government will not sign on the dotted line… 

Of course, the UK Government’s real concern is a UK-US trade deal. No chlorinated chicken, no deal. But they underestimate the strength of consumer feeling on this issue. Nobody voted for Brexit to make chicken cheaper and crueller. Nobody voted for Brexit to put UK farmers out of business. 

Fundamentally, this is a right to food issue: ensuring that our food is not just available but also culturally acceptable, healthy and sustainable. It must be for the people of a country – whether Scotland or the UK – to make the call about what they eat; not just as individuals, but as a society. And of course even if the Scottish Parliament wanted to ban this chicken, the Internal Market Bill will allow Westminster to overrule Holyrood. 

This goes beyond the impact on Scotland and the UK. The UK imports more food than India – we import three times as much food as we export. Upholding our standards – on the environment, on climate change, on animal welfare, on traceability – is one place we can show leadership. So as we argue for urgent action on biodiversity and climate change, let’s not forget that food standards save lives – now and for future generations.