Playing chicken with the EU
by Kate Hawkins, Consultant

The UK has had its fair share of food crises. We’ve had mad cow disease (BSE) in 1996; various outbreaks of E.coli and salmonella in the 80s and 90s; and the horsemeat scandal in 2013, where ‘beef’ lasagnes were found to have up to 100% horse DNA.

More recently, as we dance around our exit from the EU, we’ve heard about the risk it may pose to our current food standards, if not managed correctly. For example the scare of chlorinated chicken - a practice banned in the EU since 1997 but one that is still being used in the US – and one that some think could become accepted in the UK as part of a US trade deal.

To throw in another element, the future regulations of GM foods may come into question. A recent Savanta ComRes poll found that Conservative MPs were more likely than Labour MPs to support, in principle, a post-Brexit review of the production and sale of GM foods in the UK with a view to introducing a more permissive regulatory environment (49% Con v 21% Lab).  Such a move could have a much wider impact in creating pressure to permit GM products elsewhere in Europe, if successfully rolled out here.

Other safety and welfare concerns have been well documented within the UK and EU’s chicken farming practices - such as inhumane slaughter methods; poor space, air and light; no access to the outdoors; rapid spread of disease; mutilations and mishandling. Whilst antiobiotic use in feed is banned in the EU, most chickens are still fed growth hormones; taking them from fledgling to slaughterhouse in only 42 days.

As a result of these growing concerns, Savanta ComRes was commissioned by Eurogroup for Animals to poll consumers across the UK, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Poland and Belgium - in other words, the largest producers of poultry meat in the EU.

We learnt much from the UK research:

1. Brits love their chicken. In the UK, nine in ten eat chicken (91%), with almost three quarters saying they eat it once a week or more (73%).

2. The vast majority agree with labelling chicken meat by country of origin (87%) and the welfare standards they were raised under (84%) – practices not currently legislated by the EU, purely by voluntary regulations.

3. More than eight in ten say they think raising chickens under high safety and welfare standards is important (e.g. 82% say it is important for chickens to have access to a covered or uncovered outdoor area; and 89% think it’s important for them to be healthy and free from illness or disease). However, this is not necessarily reflected to the same extent in their expressed shopping habits.

4. Two thirds of Brits mistakenly assume that broiler chickens at least sometimes have access to the outdoors on industrial farms in the EU (67%). In reality, only 5% or fewer are reared in free-range systems. Nevertheless, four in five still say it is important that broiler chickens have access to a covered or uncovered outdoor area (82%).

Whether it’s chicken welfare or GM foods, it remains to be seen when the Government and Food Standards Agency (FSA) will commit to implement the same EU standards, improve them, adapt them, or let them slip.

The challenge is this: the public wants food that is affordable but it also wants it to be safe. In the post-Brexit environment (if we ever do Leave), it will be vital to reassure consumers that standards are not being lowered.