In 1970, on the fashionable Fulham Road in Chelsea, West London, the UK’s first New York-style burger joint opened for business.
The restaurant named itself The Great American Disaster – an ironic nod to the impact the newly imported and irresistible junk food might have on the waistlines of Britons.
Now, many in the British agricultural industry are deeply concerned that we are facing The Great American Disaster Part II.
There are major worries about animal welfare: for poultry reared on megafarms, conditions can be so filthy that their faeces-covered bodies teem with bacteria [File photo]
That in our rush to strike post-Brexit trade deals, we will open our doors to an invasion of fast-farmed US food, with chlorinated chicken in its vanguard.
The phrase – hated by Washington – has come to epitomise the vastly different agricultural standards on either side of the Atlantic.
America is the birthplace of the megafarm – or ‘concentrated animal feeding operation’, as they’re officially, if euphemistically, known.
In vast, hangar-like facilities, thousands of ‘units’ of cattle, pigs and poultry are fattened for slaughter, with many never seeing a blade of grass or even daylight. They are pumped full of hormones and treated liberally with drugs.
These high-yield farms assure cheap prices for customers, with a factory-farmed chicken as cheap as £3 in supermarkets – around 50p less than a comparable bird in the UK. The downsides, however, may be immense.
The health danger from chlorinated chicken doesn’t come from the chlorine itself, which is in concentrations so low as to cause no harm to humans.
Experts also warn there are far greater dangers in other American agricultural produce, thanks to lax laws on growth hormones, antibiotics, pesticides and labelling
Instead, there are major worries about animal welfare: for poultry reared on megafarms, conditions can be so filthy that their faeces-covered bodies teem with bacteria.
After their throats are slit, their carcasses are machine-plucked and washed in chlorine or other chemicals, such as disinfectant acid, to rid their bodies of infectious microbes.
In contrast, the EU prefers to impose higher standards on the whole process, rather than relying on cleaning up at the end – and now some British scientists are expressing fears that importing US poultry may pose a serious food-poisoning hazard.
Experts also warn there are far greater dangers in other American agricultural produce, thanks to lax laws on growth hormones, antibiotics, pesticides and labelling.
Yet with the Trump administration keen to do all it can to appease a farming lobby so powerful it has been bailed out with almost $20 billion in the past couple of years to compensate for the impact of the President’s trade war with China, just how worried should we be? The truth could surprise you.
Chlorine washing is no magic bullet
Professor Bill Keevil, head microbiologist at the University of Southampton, says his tests on chlorine washing show it may not be an effective way to beat food poisoning.
He has found that dangerous bacteria such as listeria and salmonella can evade the chemical by effectively becoming dormant.
Not only does this mean that they aren’t killed by the chemical washes, but also they cannot be detected through normal testing.
Because chlorine washing is considered a ‘process’ rather than an ‘ingredient’, it does not have to be listed on the label [File photo]
Prof Keevil warns: ‘They potentially retain their ability to cause disease, which may explain the many outbreaks of food poisoning that prove untraceable.’
Around 14 per cent of Americans suffer food poisoning each year – ten times the number of estimated cases in the UK.
If our poisoning levels matched America’s, they could result in about 5,000 deaths from food bugs a year, compared to the current figure of 500.
Avoiding chlorinated chicken could also prove tough, as imported poultry might not be clearly labelled to show if it had been treated this way.
Because chlorine washing is considered a ‘process’ rather than an ‘ingredient’, it does not have to be listed on the label.
Has your meat been beefed up by steroids?
Experts fear that greater threats to our health lie in the drugs that Americans use to boost growth rates in pigs, sheep and cattle, and to fend off virulent infections that can thrive on megafarms.
The use of steroid hormones to speed growth in cattle was banned across the EU in 1989 amid fierce scientific debate about whether it was harmful to human health.
But the practice is permitted by the US regulators, the Food and Drug Administration, with steroids typically administered via implants inserted beneath the skin behind animals’ ears.
The use of steroid hormones to speed growth in cattle was banned across the EU in 1989 amid fierce scientific debate about whether it was harmful to human health [File photo]
Rob Percival, head of policy at the Soil Association, warns that one of the six hormones routinely used on US farms has been categorised by European scientists as a known carcinogen.
In 1999, independent scientific advisers concluded that the hormone, called 17-beta-estradiol, is a ‘complete carcinogen’ – one that both causes cancerous tumours and then promotes their growth.
Their report declared that no level of the hormone could be considered safe.
‘Obviously there are serious concerns about consuming meat containing this hormone,’ says Mr Percival.
‘Of the other five hormones used in American beef farms, which include the sex hormones testosterone and progesterone, scientific panels say there is inadequate data to guarantee they are safe.’
Banned asthma drug pumped into pigs
Nearly three-quarters of US pork is estimated to be fed with a growth hormone called ractopamine, which has been banned in the meat industries in the EU, China and Russia.
The hormone belongs to a class of drugs originally developed to treat people with asthma, but its potential to build up muscle in livestock was discovered during testing, when researchers found the drug made mice more muscular.
Data from the European Food Safety Authority indicates that ractopamine, when taken by humans, can cause an elevated heart rate and palpitations.
But the US Food and Drug Administration approved ‘safe’ levels of ractopamine in pork after only one human health study involving just six healthy men, aged 19 to 26.
Although five suffered no adverse effects, one was withdrawn from the study because his heart began racing abnormally.
Chinese authorities have blamed pork containing ractopamine for causing sickness in around 1,700 people, and now only allow ractopamine-free pork imports from the US.
Nearly three-quarters of US pork is estimated to be fed with a growth hormone called ractopamine, which has been banned in the meat industries in the EU, China and Russia
Bovine somatotropin on your cornflakes?
Yet another chemical worry is the use of a growth hormone called recombinant bovine somatotropin given to dairy cows to increase their milk production.
It is approved in the US, but banned in the EU, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Israel and Argentina.
Maeve Hanan, a dietician who runs the blog dieteticallyspeaking.com, says: ‘The main reason is that good quality studies have linked its use to harming animals – causing lameness, decreased fertility, lactation problems and udder infections.’
Milk from these cows also contains higher than normal levels of growth hormones, according to studies.
Some research suggests that people who drink hormone-treated milk are at greater risk of breast and prostate cancer. But according to the American Cancer Society: ‘The evidence for potential harm to humans is inconclusive.’
Aiding the rise of killer superbugs
The routine use of antibiotics on American farms presents another serious concern.
Experts have long warned the practice threatens to boost rates of antibiotic-resistant superbugs that can affect humans.
Livestock raised for food in the US are dosed with five times as much antibiotic medicine as farm animals in the UK, according to the British pressure group Alliance To Save Our Antibiotics.
The different dosage rates rise to at least nine times as much for beef cattle. It’s three times higher in chickens than it is in the UK, double for pigs, and five times higher for turkeys, they said.
Many in the British agricultural industry are deeply concerned that we are facing The Great American Disaster Part II. That in our rush to strike post-Brexit trade deals, we will open our doors to an invasion of fast-farmed US food, with chlorinated chicken in its vanguard
Coilin Nunan, the alliance’s scientific adviser, says American farmers use antibiotics routinely to prevent infections before an outbreak of disease, rather than keeping them as a last-resort strategy for curing illness, which is the approach recommended by the World Health Organisation.
This is often because animals are farmed intensively in crowded conditions where infections can spread rapidly.
‘American practice frequently involves antibiotics that also promote faster growth in the animals – even though this type of use is banned in Europe,’ Nunan explains. ‘The dose is low, called “sub-therapeutic”, which means bacteria can survive and develop resistance to the antibiotics.’
In the EU and the UK, routine preventative dosing has been steadily reduced, although not prohibited. In the EU, it will be banned within two years.
But preventative dosing is rising in use in the US, where authorities reject the idea of a ban.
Nunan adds: ‘If we import currently-banned US products, they will be much cheaper than British farmed products. American meat will contain much more antibiotic-resistant bacteria.’
Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest public health challenges of our time, with at least 2.8 million Americans getting an antibiotic-resistant infection each year, and more than 35,000 people dying.
The latest UK figures suggest 2,985 deaths in England in 2018, a number that would rise to more than 5,500 if we had the same rate as America.
Fruit literally doused in antibiotics
Nearly three-quarters of antiiotics use worldwide is thought to be on animals rather than humans.
But American farmers spray citrus crops, too, such as oranges, tangerines and grapefruits in Florida and California.
Last month, the US Environmental Protection Agency approved ‘emergency’ use in farms of the antibiotic streptomycin – for the fifth year in a row.
Under the emergency system, pesticide safety reviews are sidestepped so that a bacterial infection called citrus greening disease can be tackled.
The World Health Organisation has called for an end to the over-use of streptomycin, which could lead to disease becoming resistant to the drug. This is currently ‘critically’ important to treating human diseases, including tuberculosis.
And environmental campaigners are trying to take the US government to court, as they are concerned about the creation of new superbugs.
From a European perspective, American pesticide safety is perilously lax, too.
Numerous pesticides are used in US farming that are banned in the UK and the EU. Inevitably, residues find their way into food for human consumption.
Since 2018, EU imports of American citrus products have plummeted as a result of tit-for-tat trade tariff battles.
But, post-Brexit, the UK may see a surge in imports of fruit from Florida and California.
…And don’t expect the label to help
None of these dangers may be apparent in the first few months of a post-Brexit trade deal – but there may be a more immediate difference in terms of imported products’ labels.
As the Soil Association’s Rob Percival points out, the use of nutritional labelling, such as ‘traffic light labels’, have been an important requirement in supporting UK public health.
However, President Trump’s trade negotiators are clear they consider nutrition labelling to be a ‘barrier to trade’ and have been locked in a dispute with Brussels over their use.
Imported US food currently enjoys a voluntary concession to UK labelling requirements, and any London-Washington trade deal is likely to weaken consumer labelling further.
With American beef, for example, labels may not tell shoppers that the meat was factory-farmed in awful conditions.
‘As well as being an animal-welfare concern, the animals’ meat is nutritionally different, because the cattle are fed on grain, not grass,’ says Percival.
None of these dangers may be apparent in the first few months of a post-Brexit trade deal – but there may be a more immediate difference in terms of imported products’ labels
Indeed, studies have shown that grain-fed beef is lower in omega-3 and other ‘heart-healthy’ fats.
‘You wouldn’t know this from the labelling,’ he adds.
To preserve the hard-won high health standards of the food on our plates, campaigners are fighting a desperate rearguard action.
Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers’ Union, is calling on the Government to add protections into law to prevent imports that ‘fail to meet our food safety, animal welfare and environmental standards’.
‘If the Government doesn’t do this, it will not only fail our farmers but the public, too, who rightly demand and expect these standards from our own farmers,’ she says.
Certainly, farmers have public support. In a recent Institute for Public Policy Research poll, 82 per cent of Britons said the UK should not lower food safety standards to secure a trade deal with the US.
However, the big fear is that British trade negotiators may consider UK food quality a comparatively small sacrifice to make – in which case, chlorinated chicken may prove the least of our food safety problems.