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Risk of 'dirty' turkey after Brexit if UK strikes a US trade deal, say food experts

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Families could end up tucking into 'dirty' turkey at Christmas if Britain strikes a post-Brexit trade deal with the United States, claim food policy experts.

Leading academics say people in Britain may be eating "dirty" chlorinated turkey over future festive seasons imported from the States if a deal is signed.

The researchers found US poultry, washed in up to four chemical disinfectants, does not meet EU safety standards.

The British team also found the chemicals are used in the USA to wash fruit, vegetables and fish.

They warn that British shoppers would be safer if the UK kept European Union standards - and say future controls should be "stricter, not weaker".

The research team, comprised of three university Professors, compared current British and EU standards with those in the USA.

They concluded that the use of chemical disinfectants in the US food industry "posed risks" to both shoppers and workers in the industry.

The question of whether the UK would import chlorine-washed meat after Brexit was raised when US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross warned that a post-Brexit UK-US trade deal would require that Britain abandoned EU standards.

Filthy food

Prof Erik Millstone, of the University of Sussex, said: "The UK should continue to insist on improving hygiene standards in poultry farms, slaughterhouses and meat-cutting plants and not allow standards to decline, nor try relying on chemical disinfectants to reduce the harm that filthy meat can cause.

"UK consumers would be safer to keep EU standards, and not to accept US disinfectant-washed-but-still-dirty poultry."

The new paper, published by the Food Research Collaboration, an inter-university network based at the Centre for Food Policy in London, concluded that far too few studies have been conducted into disinfectant-washed poultry.

The team's findings also stated that the available data set is "full of holes" while some studies have produced data indicating "significant risks".

Turkeys and chickens on sale in Britain this Christmas can't lawfully be washed with four chemicals that the US poultry trade calls 'pathogen reduction treatments' (PRTs).

Contaminated chain

The briefing paper identifies the set of scientific and policy documents, endorsed by the US Food and Drug Administration, which explain why the country's poultry industry uses these chemicals, and why they are not permitted in the UK or EU.

The researchers say that the animal carcasses are washed with disinfectants because when they arrive at US abattoirs and meat cutting plants they are far more contaminated with infectious filth, including excrement, than in Britain's current food supply chain.

They say that Britain and the EU's approach insists that hygiene standards in the supply chain are "sufficiently high" that they do not need to be chemically disinfected.

Statistics cited in the briefing paper show that 97 per cent of chicken breast meat in the US contains pathogens such as Salmonella and E. coli.

The US-approved PRT chemicals are used to wash chickens, turkeys, other types of meat as well as fish, fruit and vegetables.

The chemicals are peroxyacetic acid, chlorine dioxide, acidified sodium chlorite, and trisodium phosphate (E 339 iii).

The authors of the paper argue that if Britain allows PRT washed meat, they might then also be allowed for fish, fruit and veg.

The briefing paper also found there is evidence PRTs may contribute to the formation of toxic compounds when they interact with poultry flesh, while use of PRTs may worsen the chances that disinfectant-resistant bacteria will emerge.

Consumer confidence

Prof Tim Lang, of City University in London, said "We cannot support any weakening of UK food hygiene standards.

"This is not what UK consumers have voted for or been consulted on.

"We were shocked when we found that PRTs are allowed to wash fish, fruit and vegetables, as well as poultry. This might put off UK consumers."

The academics cite a World Health Organisation (WHO) and UN Food and Agriculture Organisation report saying disinfectants "must not be used to mask poor hygienic practices".

Prof Terry Marsden, of Cardiff University, added: "This is one of a series of food safety concerns of which consumers need to be aware as the Brexit process continues.

"The UK needs to improve its intensive food production and processing standards and not put both animals and consumers at risk."

The experts make a series of recommendations, including that Britain commits to at least maintaining safety and quality standards; public health, environmental, animal welfare and consumer organisations should combine to prevent the sale of poultry, fish, fruit and veg washed with chemical disinfectants in the UK.