The fake news about US food standards
Remainer politicians are painting a wilfully misleading picture.
On Tuesday, the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, gave a speech warning of the dangers if the Conservatives are given a chance to move the UK to ‘a more deregulated American model of how to run the economy’. Alongside the usual nonsense about privatising the NHS, Corbyn claimed that food standards would plummet: ‘Given the chance, they’ll slash food standards to US levels where “acceptable levels” of rat hairs in paprika and maggots in orange juice are allowed and they’ll put chlorinated chicken on our supermarket shelves.’
This idea seems to have first come to the fore in an article for Business Insider back in September 2017. It was rehashed by the same publication in 2018 and reproduced in the UK Independent last year. The original article notes some examples: ‘For tomato juice, the FDA limits up to five fly eggs and one maggot per 100 grams, the equivalent of a small juice glass. Up to 15 fly eggs and one maggot per 100 grams is allowed for tomato paste and other pizza sauces. Mushrooms are granted more leeway – 20 maggots “of any size” per 100 grams of drained mushrooms or 15 grams of dried mushrooms.’
Just to add to the yuk factor, the article adds: ‘Americans on average most likely ingest one to two pounds of flies, maggots and mites each year without knowing it – a level the FDA says is safe. The agency established these guidelines in 1995 and has revised them several times.’ For comparison, the average American appears to eat just under 2,000 pounds of food per year. In relative terms, such bug consumption is trivial. Remember, these are natural products grown in soil and surrounded by a variety of bugs. Short of cooking or sterilisation, it would be impossible to get rid of these bugs and adulterations entirely, though we obviously expect food processors to do their level best to do so.
Underpinning these claims from Labour and others is the idea that the US is some kind of Wild West where anything goes. The suggestion is that any attempt to regulate food production is slapped down by corporate interests determined to sell any old adulterated crap to dimwitted Americans. But anyone who has ever eaten in America will know that US food standards are just as considered and serious as those in Europe. Of course, there are differences of regulations – like on that aforementioned ‘chlorinated’ chicken – but that doesn’t mean that these standards are deliberately or universally lower than those in the EU.
These claims about food adulteration are seriously misleading. They are based on a half-cocked reading of the rules on adulteration from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) document ‘Food Defect Levels Handbook’. The handbook opens with the statement that the FDA is empowered ‘to establish maximum levels of natural or unavoidable defects in foods for human use that present no health hazard. These “Food Defect Action Levels” listed in this booklet are set on this premise – that they pose no inherent hazard to health.’
These ‘action levels’ should not be read as some kind of permission to adulterate food or to allow carelessness in production. The introduction continues by noting: ‘Poor manufacturing practices may result in enforcement action without regard to the action level.’ So why have such levels at all? As the handbook points out: ‘The FDA set these action levels because it is economically impractical to grow, harvest or process raw products that are totally free of non-hazardous, naturally occurring, unavoidable defects. Products harmful to consumers are subject to regulatory action whether or not they exceed the action levels.’
In other words, if there are adulterations in foods that are clearly hazardous, these will be actionable. If there are non-hazardous adulterations, these may be actionable at any level, but are certainly actionable above the levels listed in the handbook. These are ‘definitely no excuses’ levels. They are certainly not ‘average’ levels. Moreover, these ‘action levels’ are explicit and transparent. The EU does not appear to set such levels at all.
But never mind the details, this is an opportunity to bash America, the Tories and Brexit in one go. So Caroline Lucas, Green MP and leading light of the ‘People’s Vote’ campaign, is quoted in that 2018 Independent article: ‘This is the gruesome reality of the US trade deal being touted by Liam Fox as one of the great benefits of leaving the EU. Under the government’s disastrous Brexit, we will finally be free to eat all the maggot-ridden food we like. No one voted for a Brexit that waters down the safety and hygiene of our food – but that’s what the government is pursuing. The US actively dislikes many existing EU measures.’
Anyone who has ever eaten in the US will know the food is, by all reasonable standards, safe to eat – as well as cheap and delivered in enormous portions. Outbreaks of food-borne illnesses are swiftly investigated and dealt with, just as in Europe. The US is a rich country, it should hardly be a shock that it has high food standards. Not only does that mean direct regulation from government, but America is famously the most litigious nation on Earth, with eye-watering damages imposed on companies found to have allowed standards to slip. Food manufacturers have enormous incentives to do things properly.
Oh, and let us just consider the irony of all this nonsense coming from eco-warriors like Lucas and Corbyn, who would be the first in the queue to tell us we should be eating insects instead of chicken and beef. Yet when we have the tiniest consumption of insects quite naturally, it’s a sign that the neoliberals would feed us filth. What do they think happens on those ‘pick your own fruit’ farms? Can they be sure what they pick will be bug-free? Of course not.
Bending the truth in the name of bashing America and Brexit is appalling. This is fake news, pure and simple, delivered by the kind of people who rail against media lies and spin the rest of the time. Let’s welcome American food to the UK. If it cuts prices, it will help precisely the kind of people – ‘the many’ – that Labour claims to serve.
Rob Lyons is science and technology director at the Academy of Ideas and a spiked columnist.
Picture by: Paul Waite, published under a creative-commons license.
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