'Brexit derangement syndrome has everyone panicking about everything'

What might happen to food standards post-Brexit?

Friday, October 18, 2019

This is a shortened version of Will Brexit leave us dining on rat poo? for Unherd.com

I saw a story about food standards, and the things we’ll have to accept if Britain signs a hasty post-Brexit trade deal with the USA.

Not just chlorinated chicken – the US rules require that producers adhere to a “Defect Levels Handbook”, which, according to Business Insider, sets out “the maximum number of foreign bodies like maggots, insect fragments and mould that can be in food products before they are put on the market”.

For instance, acceptable levels include “up to 30 insect fragments in a 100-gram jar of peanut butter; as well as 11 rodent hairs in a 25-gram container of paprika; or 3 milligrams of mammalian excreta (typically rat or mouse excrement) per each pound of ginger”.

Barry Gardiner, the shadow Brexit secretary, told Greenpeace’s (admirable) investigative journalism department, Unearthed, that “Their rules specify ‘acceptable levels’ of maggots in orange juice, rat droppings in ginger and hormone levels in beef. The right level should be zero.”

Labour's Barry Gardiner

But it isn’t. There is, absolutely, rodent hair in peanut butter made in the EU, and maggots in EU-regulated orange juice. The fact that the levels are not explicitly limited does not make that any less true – in fact, you could argue that the US approach is both more honest and more stringent than the EU version. At least they have a hard limit on how much rat poo is allowed in a pound of ginger.

These aren’t maximum permissible levels, but “actionable limits”. The FDA will automatically prosecute producers if their goods contain more than that level or, even if the levels are lower, if it is shown that producers are not taking good care.

There are no EU-wide “actionable limits”; countries set their own best practice guidelines. 

But fundamentally, it is practically and economically impossible to ensure a total absence of contaminants in food. So the grown-up thing to do is to accept that your peanut butter will contain some near-homeopathic levels of rat poo.

This isn’t to say that a US trade deal won’t lead to lowered standards or increased rat-poo concentrations. Perhaps it will. But it is not that Brexit will mean we all end up eating maggots. We already eat maggots.

Boris Johnson and Donald Trump have discussed a free trade deal

The trouble is we’ve all gone a bit Brexit-mad. At least, I think it’s Brexit – perhaps we were mad already, but I am sure it’s worse.

The whole Brexit thing, to some degree, began with obviously ridiculous stories about the EU which readers were eager to believe because they confirmed what they already believed. Bendy bananas, extra-small Italian condoms, secret plans to create a European empire, that sort of thing.

Now we’re all at it: unsurprisingly, since it’s not just Brexiters who are prone to motivated reasoning, or overexcitement. Brexit derangement syndrome has everyone panicking about everything: Lib Dem spies, dogging lorries, maggot-infested foods, Boris Johnson the dictator, traitor MPs undermining democracy.

Have we 'all gone a bit Brexit-mad'?

The trouble is that Brexit, especially a no-deal Brexit, is bound to have profound consequences. But it becomes very difficult to tease out the crazy from the realistic.

That, though, just makes it all the more important that we try. If we cry wolf at everything, then when we want to say “no, this one actually is really bad”, then people will (reasonably) be less willing to believe us. If we shout about maggoty orange juice and rat hairs in our peanut butter, then it’ll be harder to get people to listen when medicine shortages loom, which they might...

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