Last week the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, promised the UK would lead the world in animal welfare and environmental standards. We weren’t convinced, warning of the gulf between rhetoric and potential reality as Brexit loomed. It didn’t take long. A mere handful of days later the Trade Secretary has already started hinting that chicken washed in chlorine could be sold in the UK as part of a trade deal with the US.

Currently the EU bans the sale of chicken carcasses rinsed in the kind of chemicals you use to clean your bathroom floor. The US doesn’t; it’s common practice on American mega-farms. Chicken ends up being about one-fifth cheaper than over here. This is because throughout the birds’ short lives, the farmers don’t worry too much about stopping the spread of horrid pathogens like campylobacter. Why bother? Just sluice them down with a chemical soup when they’re dead.  As the European Consumers Organisation BEUC summarises, “chemical washes aim to make up for inadequate hygiene on farms and abattoirs.” Thus, more birds crammed together in mega-sheds; lower animal welfare standards; more money; cheaper chicken.

But the Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, isn’t that bothered about that kind of thing.  Giving a speech to the American Enterprise Institute, he scoffed at people’s fluffy concern for their health when there’s money to be made:

“In a debate which should be about how you get, or make, a contribution to global liberalisation and the prosperity of both the UK, the US and our trading partners… the British media are obsessed with chlorine-washed chickens.”

In every trade negotiation, each side has the things that really matter to it. Dr Fox described whether or not any UK/US deal has chemical chicken in it as a “detail”. It isn’t: Joe Biden once warned Nick Clegg that he would sign no trade deal “that the chicken farmers of Delaware don’t like.”  But two-thirds of UK consumers don’t want to buy chlorine-washed chicken. So we have a problem.

Dr Fox is right that chlorine-washed chicken has indeed become totemic. It’s about what we stand to lose. This behaviour is banned on this side of the Atlantic because of those pesky Eurocrats, coming over here, stopping us from eating peroxyacetic acid – and growth hormone-riddled beef, come to that. The EU’s vital ‘precautionary principle’ is one of the foundational parts of the Lisbon Treaty, which sets out some overarching rules for what guides all the laws the EU makes. Under the principle, you have to prove your activity won’t harm the public before you are allowed to do it. Given the tentacular complexity of ecology and ecosystems, that’s a pretty wise idea. It’s one of the reasons we don’t have tapeworms in our meat any more. But if the Government has its way we probably won’t be bringing that principle into UK law once we leave the EU.

Animal welfare, health or environmental protection aren’t things which will happen just because Michael Gove says they will

It is going to be very, very difficult to have a gung-ho anything-goes free-trade-for-everyone Brexit, and one that keeps protections for people, animals and the environment high, or makes them higher. It’s like trying to keep your front garden tidy while letting anyone you like come in and put their deckchair up on your begonias. And today the House of Lords has most sternly agreed, warning that:

“The greatest threat to farm animal welfare standards post-Brexit would come from UK farmers competing against cheap, imported food from countries that produce to lower standards than the UK. Therefore, the Government’s wish for the UK to become a global leader in free trade is not necessarily compatible with its desire to maintain high animal welfare standards.”

Animal welfare, health or environmental protection aren’t things which will happen just because Michael Gove says they will. Just like climate change, they’re affected by what we do with trade, and so much else of every bit of what Government does.  At a time of higgledy-piggledy Brexit mayhem, principles of protection need to sit at the very top of the tree for Government as a whole – more important than rule-cutting, or keeping Donald happy, or making a quick buck.

The most worrying thing of all is the Trade Secretary’s inclination to pass off as a piffling ‘detail’ whether we build a trade deal around something hardly anyone in the UK wants. It’s hard to find a better case for sharp limits to what Ministers are allowed to do without public involvement and Parliamentary scrutiny.