Cabinet split over whether to allow the import of controversial “chlorine washed” chicken could cause a major stumbling block in Liam Fox’s trade talks with the US today.
Dr Fox wants to allow the import of poultry treated with a chlorine wash process, which is currently banned under EU rules.
It is more than one-fifth cheaper than British chicken, and has been deemed safe by the European Food Safety Authority, despite the EU ban.
The American Farming Association has been clear that any free trade deal must include agriculture, and that chlorine-washed chicken, hormone-fed beef and genetically modified crops must be approved for export to the UK.
Dr Fox, who has the support of Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, wants agriculture to be included in free trade discussions and believes chlorine-washed chicken is safe to eat and should be included in any deal.
But Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, has insisted that British food standards will not be downgraded in any way, and Andrea Leadsom, the Leader of the House and former environment secretary, is opposed to the move, saying cheap, poor quality imports could damage British farming.
Chicken in the US is immersed in a chlorine dioxide solution to kill harmful bacteria such as salmonella. It costs American shoppers 21 per cent less than the equivalent product on UK shelves.
A spokesman for Dr Fox said he currently had “no position” on chlorine-washed chicken and said the talks were “a long way” from discussing any deal on agriculture.
But a source close to Dr Fox recently said he believed that “Americans have been eating it perfectly safely for years” and that any “meaningful” trade deal with the US would have to include agriculture, which would give giant American farms access to the UK market.
Mr Gove and Ms Leadsom have argued strongly against such a move. Ms Leadsom has “serious concerns” about the consequences for British farmers.
As well as losing market share in the UK to cheap US imports, she believes that if Britain lowers its standards to compete with US food prices, it will lose its access to EU markets as European countries will no longer accept our products.
Asked earlier this month if he was “absolutely clear” that British food standards “will not be loosened in any way”, Mr Gove said: “Yes.”
It comes as a think tank report said removing the ban on chlorinated chicken would be a “highly symbolic move”. According to the Adam Smith Institute, the average man would have to eat three whole chickens that had been washed in chlorine per day to risk harm.