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How Brexit May Impact The UK Food Industry
Grocery retail is among the sectors that upcoming Brexit negotiations may shake up. As the UK separates from the European Union (EU), the country will need to start sourcing grocery products from other countries, such as the US, Japan and Germany, which may lead to different products, ingredients and standard for Britain’s supply chain.
Food safety experts fear post-Brexit trade deals could dilute existing food safety legislation, which exists to protect consumers. While many Brits are savvy shoppers, others may not know which questions to ask retail companies about their meat products and how they impact their health. As such, post-Brexit food legislation in the UK must continue to protect the health and safety of all British consumers.
Consumers concerned about chlorinated US chicken
If the UK establishes a trade deal with the US, it could have significant implications that on food standards and food safety in the meat industry, particularly with sales of fresh chicken. Significant differences in food regulations exist between the US and UK and the US’ current production process for chicken could increase the risk of salmonella entering the UK food chain.
The UK is currently governed by extensive EU rules for processing chicken, which take more time, effort and money than similar US processes, yet it reduces the risk of salmonella cases. UK chicken producers say their products are worth the slight premium compared to US products because of the specialized care, artisan expertise and small batches for quality control.
By contrast, the US method of processing fresh chicken involves washing the chicken in chlorine right before packaging the product. As soon as U.S. President Donald Trump announced a potential US-UK trade deal, the chicken issue exploded in the media.
Awareness of the contrast in production methods between the two countries led to a huge outcry from the British public, and consumer groups have gone directly to UK governing ministers to voice their concerns. UK Environment Secretary Michael Gove said the UK should say “no” to chlorine washed chicken from the United States. “We are not going to dilute our high food-safety standards or our high environmental standards in pursuit of any trade deals,” Gove said. (1)
Currently, most chicken available in the UK is British and it meets UK standards; there is little demand for US chicken now. However, if cheaper US chicken becomes available on the market,
it could erode British chicken producers’ sales. New food standards and legislation must ensure that, ultimately consumer do not suffer just to secure trade deals for cheaper products.
How a US-UK deal could impact beef and pork
Among beef products, EU standards currently protect UK beef by regulating how cattle rearing and restricting the use of growth hormones. By contrast, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of steroid hormones in cows raised for beef, so US beef can contain growth hormones, which are linked to obesity. A study in the International Journal of Obesity from researchers at 10 universities, including Yale University School of Medicine and Johns Hopkins University, found the use of steroid hormones in meat production could be a possible contributor to the obesity epidemic. (2)
Unlike beef, pork products must not contain hormones. British shoppers often buy pork from UK producers, because they believe “British is better” due to superior care for the pigs and the fact the food has traveled fewer miles if they buy local or domestic. Current UK standards for the rearing and welfare of pigs are already higher than European standards. British farmers rear pigs with more outdoor space, and feed and care for the animals better.
Such quality, care and ethics matter to British meat consumers. For example, Sainsbury’s successful Value for Values campaign messaging conveyed the retailer sells similar products as competitor Tesco at similar prices. However, Sainsbury’s offers better value because the products reflect values like fair trade, sustainability and compassionate care for animals. The campaign boosted ham sales and consumer brand loyalty for Sainsbury’s.
What the food industry can do
As chlorine-washed chicken and hormones in beef have made headlines in the UK, consumers are far more conscious of meat processing issues than ever before. Meanwhile, the democratizing role of social media means it’s easier than ever for consumers to directly ask retailers and suppliers about the processing methods used in their supply chain.
While food products are already so tightly regulated in the UK, Brexit will bring even greater regulatory complexity compared to current EU standards and existing standards could be diluted without consumers’ knowledge.
Now it’s incumbent on retailers to monitor post-Brexit changes to food standards. Consumers also increasingly demand to know the details of their food products, and retailers and suppliers need a way to communicate the changes to consumers.
For a competitive advantage, UK meat suppliers can educate the British public by developing product labeling and online product information to communicate their high standards to consumers. The messaging may include how a product was manufactured, the standards with which they reared the animals, their avoidance of growth hormones, all of which contribute to superior quality. As a result, retail companies will likely collect new data based on new supply chain processes.
(1) Fox, Liam. Brexit: Michael Gove says UK will never let in chlorinated chicken imports after Liam Fox said it was fine. The Independent. July 26, 2017.
(2) Chemicals in Food Can Make You Fat. CBS News. February 11, 2010.