The fake news about US food standards

Remainer politicians are painting a wilfully misleading picture.

Rob Lyons


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.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.



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James Knight

7th November 2019 at 5:53 pm

Meanwhile in the UK people have been consuming horse meat.

Martin Woodville

7th November 2019 at 9:25 pm

So? Go into a French supermarket and you will see horse meat openly on sale, and in other European countries too. The main meat in Slovenia is horse. And what wrong with horse? If you eat a cow, why not a horse?

Quentin Vole

8th November 2019 at 10:11 pm

I enjoy eating horse meat in Belgium (I haven’t come across it in France). What people are objecting to is EU approved meat being labelled as ‘beef’ when it was actually horse. (and probably not originally intended for human consumption).

A Marshal

7th November 2019 at 5:01 pm

For dairy in the UK , there is an ‘acceptable level’ of faecal material allowed. This means most milk sold in the UK (and everywhere else btw) contains shit. A dairy farmer I know drinks the milk he produces; but he drinks BEFORE pasteurisation. These are the facts. Food is contaminated. The environment is contaminated. My concern about chlorinated chicken is that it might be ‘too clean’.

Ven Oods

7th November 2019 at 11:16 am

“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.”

One wonders what Jezza thinks of Guardian articles that tell us we should all have an insect-rich diet and thereby save the planet?


7th November 2019 at 10:40 am

In the early 1990s I saw for myself a US pig farmer cheerfully mixing antibiotic drugs in his animals’ feed with no regard for label recommendations, proper dosages etc. At that time all in-feed antibiotics were controlled under veterinary supervision on UK farms. In this country what he was doing would have been extremely illegal if not close to impossible.

That being said, I agree with the general point of this article. US food production standards are probably not as strict as ours today, but certainly their processing industry does not lag behind the EU’s. And it must be said that production standards vary enormously across the EU. UK standards are higher than most, if not all, of the rest. It also ought to be known that the EU allows imports of poultry meat that are produced in third countries with growth promoters that are banned within the EU itself; there is no secret about that. But heigh ho, none of the Remainer lobby seems to give a monkey’s about that.

However, I can’t pretend that any of it worries me unduly. I’ve eaten street food in a number of developing countries and lived to tell the tale. And I’m as good certain that not eating really would be dangerous.

Brian Jordan

7th November 2019 at 10:22 am

So the UK – and the whole of the EU for that matter – is free from these “adulterants” (which should really be termed “contaminents” anyway)? AFAIK there have for a long time been standard limits for rodent hairs in flour. A quick search on line couldn’t find the details, but behold:

“Bread could be contaminated by rat hairs and droppings, experts warn ”

Puddy Cat

7th November 2019 at 9:49 am

Are we to be force fed US food? About 350 million Americans eat. Perhaps its the extra protein they get from maggots and flies (very popular additives with the Greens). It s not as though, with all the information demanded to be be put on food items) that people will not be able to differentiate. Some will buy cheap (and may cut down on food bank issues) and others will go premium, it’s always been the case. Sounds like a great boost for organic to me.

Gerard Barry

7th November 2019 at 9:06 am

This reminds me of the debate here in Germany over TTIP, when those opposed to it were concerned about the apparently lower food safety standards in the US compared to Europe. To listen to the debate, anyone would think the US were a developing country, as opposed to a highly developed nation at least on a par with Europe. Smug anti-Americanism at its finest.

Mike Stallard

7th November 2019 at 9:03 am

I lived for three glorious months in Texas. I went on holiday to the East Coast for a fortnight. Never once did I feel any queasy tummy.
When I lived in Murcia, Spain and Oviedo, Asturias, I got tummy trouble all the time.

Carlo Guli

7th November 2019 at 8:43 am

One thing that springs to mind when reading articles such as this is that the real threat to our political system, optimistically branded “democratic”, is the lack of nation wide forums that would allow people to exchange facts and ideas and challenge misleading information without depending on the fallacies, if not malice, of those few that have the priviledge of standing on a platform from which they can shout.
But how would that work in practical terms?
Is this not the big problem social media is grappling with at the moment?
You don’t want such a global forum to get moderated, because who would we trust to moderate it?
And without moderation what would stop trolls from drowning the conversation?
The underlying problem to solve is the lack of democratic education, at all levels.
Take as an example the fact that Ms Jo Swinson policy of reversing a democratic vote goes totally unchallenged.
Or that our MPs are allowed to change their political standing without being forced to go back to the electorate.
And worse of all the fact that a great swathe of the electorate think they can refuse to concede and keep campaining until they get what they want.
Just yesterday I heard a person defining Brexit a mere “opinion” and I had to challenge it, unpleasant as it was.
A good democratic education ensures we can have calm, respectful political debates without the need for moderation.
A minority of trolls can be dealt with just by ignoring them.

M Blando

7th November 2019 at 7:34 pm

You are sadly correct. I despair. We seem to have a combination of The Unaccountable + The Emotionally Driven. An awful combination that will unfold in horrible ways I fear.

Peter Gardner

9th November 2019 at 6:04 am

Dear Carlo, allow people to exchange facts and ideas and challenge those few that have the privilege of standing on a platform from which they can shout? Are you mad? The whole point of Liberalism is that only those with opinions and thoughts that have been inculcated or approved by the Liberal elite are allowed to do that. Good grief. The only reason we don’t have a one party state is that the Liberal elite haven’t yet managed to agree among themselves which political party to coalesce around, or even what it should be called, long enough for the public to find out.
Get a grip. We can’t have people reading old unapproved books – like the Bible or history – and reciting passages in public. Mad, utterly mad. Where do you get these ideas from?

Jonnie Henly

7th November 2019 at 8:39 am

This shrill article is predicated on he assumption that the FDA is accurate in what they deem ‘harmful to consumers’.

But why focus on the issue at hand when you’re desperately trying to screetch about “fake news”?

Jonnie Henly

7th November 2019 at 8:34 am

Certain Brexiters want to swap on foreign master in the EU for another in the US.

A Marshal

7th November 2019 at 5:06 pm

Never met anyone who wants to become 51st state of the EU (etats unis). Quite a few ( scots-irish esp) wish to be governed from overseas, by foreigners of the UE (union europeene), to use UN nomenclature. Brexiters just want to go back to being independent.

Jerry Owen

7th November 2019 at 5:43 pm

A Marshall
Jonnie Henly who has another alias is the resident troll , the minute he’s challenged he runs away or ignores you. He has a soft spot for Brendan really.. but he’s at that funny age !

Jerry Owen

7th November 2019 at 5:38 pm

Little Jonnie
I’m still waiting for your answer on how running two businesses ‘confirms my narrow mindedness’ and some examples oj jokes BON accepts and some he doesn’t .
Don’t be a coward and run away again stand up for yourself for once!

Jerry Owen

7th November 2019 at 5:41 pm

Little Jonnie
Brexiteers don’t want a foreign master at all… you have lost it haven’t you !

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