The majority of British consumers are against imports of lower standard food as part of any future UK-US trade deal, a survey has suggested.
In a poll of more than 2,000 people carried out for consumer group Which?, 86% were worried that a weakening of standards under a post-Brexit free trade agreement could lead to currently banned products appearing in the UK.
Which? said this could include chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef being served up in schools, hospitals and restaurants, where people may have little information or choice about what they eat.
The survey revealed that 74% of those questioned were opposed to importing food produced using these methods, a response that was consistent across all socio-economic groups.
Some 95% of people said it is important for the UK to maintain existing food standards, which ban the use of chlorine-washing, growth hormones and many pesticides.
It would be simply wrong to maintain high standards at home yet import food from overseas that has been produced to lower standards
As negotiations over a UK-US trade deal continue, Which? is calling on the Government to create legal protections for food standards.
Such legal commitments could be made through the Agriculture or Trade Bills currently before Parliament, it argued.
The new executive director of supermarket chain Waitrose, James Bailey, has thrown his support behind the call for new legislative provisions.
Writing to customers, he said that “any regression from the standards we have pioneered for the last 30 years, both as a business and as a country, would be an unacceptable backwards step”.
He added: “It would be simply wrong to maintain high standards at home yet import food from overseas that has been produced to lower standards.
“We would be closing our eyes to a problem that exists in another part of the world and to animals who are out of our sight and our minds.”
Mr Bailey highlighted that one million people have signed a National Farmers’ Union petition calling for laws to prevent future trade deals leading to food imports that would be illegal to produce in the UK.
International Trade Secretary Liz Truss told MPs last week that the UK’s high food standards will not be compromised by any new trade deals she strikes.
The Which? survey found that only one in 10 (11%) people from less affluent households said food from countries with lower standards should be allowed in the UK, in comparison with one in six (16%) from more affluent households.
The consumer group said the findings “dispel the myth” that British consumers have an appetite for food produced at lower standards than the UK’s own.
Some 80% of people said they would be uncomfortable eating beef produced using growth hormones, the poll indicated.
It also found that 77% would be uncomfortable eating meat from healthy farm animals given antibiotics to boost their growth, while 73% would be uncomfortable eating chlorine-washed chicken.
A majority of respondents said food produced to US standards, such as chlorinated chicken (63%) and hormone-treated beef (61%), should not be allowed into the UK even if labelled.
Number of people who said it is important to maintain existing food standards in any US-UK trade deal
Which? said it is concerned by “a push” from the US agriculture lobby to weaken UK labelling regulations as part of a trade deal.
It claimed that processes used in the US, such as chlorine-washed chicken, are often used to “make up for serious problems in the food production process” and contribute to “unacceptably high levels of food-borne illness among Americans”.
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.”
A Department for International Trade spokesman said: “This Government has been clear it will not sign a trade deal that will compromise our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food safety standards.
“We are a world leader in these areas and that will not change.
“Chlorinated chicken and hormone-injected beef are not permitted for import into the UK. This will be retained through the EU Withdrawal Act and enshrined in UK law at the end of the transition agreement.”