The UK should not accept imports of chlorinated chickens as part of any future trade deal with the US, Michael Gove has said.
The environment secretary told the BBC that the UK would not “compromise” on or “dilute” its animal welfare standards in the interests of trade.
The EU currently bans chlorine-washed chickens on welfare grounds.
International Trade Secretary Liam Fox has questioned this but downplayed the potential for UK-US disagreement.
It will be up to the UK to decide whether to retain the ban once it leaves the EU in March 2019.
On a visit to Washington on Monday, Mr Fox said chlorinated chicken was just one detail in one sector that would only be addressed at the end of discussions about a free trade deal – which are likely to be years away.
He has suggested there are no food safety issues regarding chlorine-washed chickens, a view shared by many UK experts.
What is chlorinated chicken?
In the US, it is legal to wash chicken carcasses in strongly chlorinated water.
Producers argue that it stops the spread of microbial contamination from the animal’s digestive tract to the meat, while regulators agree.
The practice is banned in the EU, which argues that it could increase the risk of bacterial-based diseases such as salmonella on the grounds that dirty abattoirs with sloppy standards would rely on it as a decontaminant rather than making sure their basic hygiene protocols were up to scratch.
There are also concerns that such “washes” would be used by less scrupulous meat processing plants to increase the shelf-life of meat, making it appear fresher than it really is.
The European Food Standards Agency is currently considering whether to allow peroxyacetic acid as a poultry rinse.
Agriculture is likely to be one of the sticking points in talks over a deal, amid concerns about differing farming and welfare practices, such the use of growth hormones given to cows and cattle.
Asked whether lifting the ban on chlorinated chickens was a price to be paid for sealing a post-Brexit deal with the US, Mr Gove told BBC Radio 4’s Today: “No. I have made it perfectly clear we are not going to dilute our high environmental standards or our animal welfare standards in the pursuit of a trade deal.
“We need to ensure that we do not compromise those standards. And we need to be in a position as we leave the European Union to be leaders in environmental and in animal welfare standards.”
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While membership of the EU meant the UK had to accept some environmental obligations “which do not work in the interests of the environment”, he said the UK had been a world leader in environmental standards for decades and that would continue after Brexit.
A Lords report on Wednesday warned that UK farmers’ livelihoods could be threatened by an influx of cheaper food imports from the US. It said there was evidence that UK consumers would be willing to pay more for food reared to higher standards but it remained to be seen if this would happen in practice.
Journalist Ross Clark said the European Food Standards Agency accepted there was no public health risk from chlorinated chickens and the EU’s stance amounted to “protectionism in disguise”.
He told Today that the UK should not be lecturing the US on food safety standards, given past scandals such as BSE and horsemeat.