Which? reveals consumer concern over trade deal threat to school and hospital food

British consumers are overwhelmingly against imports of food produced to lower standards like chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef – with many also concerned these foods could be served in schools and hospitals, new research from Which? reveals.

The survey of more than 2,000 members of the general public reveals more than eight in 10 (86%) were concerned weakening UK food standards as part of a trade deal could lead to products that are currently banned such as chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef 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.

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

More than nine in 10 (95%) of those surveyed by the consumer champion said it is important for the UK to maintain existing food standards – which ban chlorine-washed chicken, meat from animals treated with growth hormones or antibiotics and many pesticides commonly used in US food production.

Around three-quarters (74%) said they were opposed to importing food produced using these methods – a response that was consistent across all socio-economic groups.

Which? found those from lower socio-economic backgrounds were less likely than those from higher socio-economic households to believe imports of food produced to lower standards should be available in the UK.

Only one in 10 (11%) from lower socio-economic groups said food from countries with lower standards should be allowed in the UK, in comparison with one in six (16%) from higher socio-economic groups.

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

Around eight in 10 people said they would be uncomfortable eating beef produced using growth hormones (80%) or meat from healthy farm animals given antibiotics to boost their growth (77%), while seven in 10 (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.

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? is 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.

Which? believes the UK’s world-leading system of checks and monitoring at every stage of the food production process – which is not replicated in the US – must not be put at risk in trade negotiations. In the US, processes like chlorine washes for chicken are often used to make up for serious problems in the food production process – which contribute to unacceptably high levels of foodborne illness among Americans.

Despite repeated assurances to protect food standards, Which? is 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.

Which? believes the government and MPs must reassure British consumers and food producers by putting its commitments on food standards into law through the Agriculture or Trade Bills.

In doing so, it can send a positive message to international trading partners that the UK is ready to strike ambitious trade deals and to work together to improve standards – particularly when it comes to food production.

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.

“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.”

Notes to editors

Populus, on behalf of Which?, surveyed 2078 UK adults online between the 15th and 16th June 2020. The data were weighted to be demographically representative of the UK population.

Press Release