The past week in food has been awash with debates around chlorinated chicken, and two article’s in particular caught my attention 1, 2. It leads me onto a part of the debate we seem to not be delving into enough, and sparks the wider discussion of, “What is animal welfare in the first place and how do we go about determining it?”. This is a question I’m still trying to answer.
Now the philosopher in me, will tell you, we cannot answer this question, for we can never experience anything outside of ourselves, regardless of what science tells us, thus in turn, we cannot truly know or understand what our imposed ideas of animal rights and welfare actually manifest themselves as, for the animals in question.
The more pragmatic side in me however accepts that we currently live in a world where animals are reared for the benefit of human consumption, wants and “needs”. If this is to stay, we ought to strive toward the best practices that we can knowingly achieve, with the understanding that we currently hold. So how does this fit in Brexit?
The Food Brexit Predicament
As we begin entering Brexit negotiations, the UK needs to start thinking about trade. In light of the UK not being self-sufficient, as well as the general economy of trade, the question is, how will we source our food and where will it come from?
One of the most likely options is trading with the US. With this then, are questions around, what legislation and policies are currently in place, what will change post-Brexit, and ultimately, is the UK, a nation with some of the highest food safety and welfare standards, prepared to scale back on those high standards, to land trade deals?
Why Chlorinated Chicken?
The debate around chlorinated chicken sums up the difficult questions we as a nation will need to face up to in light of Brexit. Importantly however, it exemplifies the complexities of Food Brexit and allows us to focus on what we have, against what we could have. The context of this debate centers itself around the difference in approaches to food safety this side of the Atlantic, compared with our friends to the West. I however, see this as the interpretation of what animal welfare means and how to achieve the greatest standards.
The difference between the continents is the pre-slaughter and post-slaughter take on food safety, where one encompasses lifecycle welfare, and the other essentially doesn’t. In the US, they’ve opted for the post- approach, where safety is dealt with after the point of slaughter; opting for chemical measures to fight off pathogens instead of lifecycle preventative measures to ensure poultry do not get infected. The EU on the other hand bans this process, with the “farm-to-fork” ethos in mind, prevention is better than cure. Thus, achieving high welfare standards, results in minimising pathogens, meaning a dunk in a chlorine-rich pool is not needed.
In business terms, the difference boils down to economics. Simon Dawson of Cardiff Metropolitan University writes in his article:
“It all comes down to money and efficiency of space. The majority of farmers do care about rearing their birds, but as profit margins can be very tight, animal welfare is sidelined to keep costs down. In the EU, cost is also important, but the law means it can’t come at the expense of the birds’ basic welfare. There is a legal minimum amount of space, lighting and ventilation for EU poultry rearing houses.
The more space the birds have to move around in, the fewer can be housed in a single area, which in turn has an effect on production costs. As there are no laws governing this in the US, the birds can be crammed in tightly so they have limited movement, with little light or ventilation. This reduces production costs but increases the risks of disease and contamination in a flock.”
Are we asking the right question, or is this a question of welfare?
The post-slaughter approach isn’t just about the chemicals themselves, but rather the notion that these are quick solutions that essentially clean up and ultimately mask dirty, low standard industry practices which can come at the expense of an animals wellbeing. This post-slaughter approach provides a tool to hide an industry riddled with practices many of us simply wouldn’t accept. But what will we accept in light of Brexit?
Michael Gove rules out that chlorinated chicken will become a post-Brexit reality; take this with a pinch of salt until we see trade deals. This isn’t just a question of solely not wanting our food dunked in chemical bathes. The question is much bigger, encompassing what standards we want maintain or even exceed, what should be striving for and how can we set the benchmark for welfare as we have been doing for so many years?
Finding the answer amidst the policy chaos
A particular line from Dawson’s article stands out for me and is one of the major risk points I see that extends far beyond this subject matter; of succumbing to the pressures of economics over the environment and society.
“The majority of farmers do care about rearing their birds, but as profit margins can be very tight, animal welfare is sidelined to keep costs down”.
I unfortunately cannot see how these elements interact with one another, and I implore anyone who is able to facilitate and accept poor welfare (and standards in all aspects) for an economic benefit to sit me down and explain to me logically how they have come to such conclusions. I will listen, because I want to understand this nexus and as our departure looms, we need to start making decisions and having difficult discussions, whilst taking into account the conflicting complexities that we are going to be faced with as we go forward in this process.
Needless to say, what the UK currently has is some of the highest standards, however it is not a system that is without critique and developing more coherent food system is something to look toward. What Brexit offers is a chance to reflect, refine and make the right choices for all entities involved. What it does pose however, is a threat enthralled in short-term thinking and short-term gains, which could result in a lax approach to topics as ethically complex as animal welfare and rights.
I hope and will advocate for a direction that is embedded in society and the environment, with the economy serving those key levers, for without those, what do we have, and economy in service of what? What does Food Brexit look like for you? I’m keen to explore this subject in greater detail. Reach out and lets talk.