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Fox plays down chicken debate during US visit to discuss post-Brexit trade links

He is taking part in two days of talks at the first UK-US trade and investment working group.

Decisions on whether to allow chlorine-washed chicken to be sold to British consumers would be taken at the “very end stage” of a potential US-UK free trade deal, Liam Fox said as he condemned media “obsession” with the subject.

The International Trade Secretary was in Washington for talks on post-Brexit trade links with the United States amid concerns that any agreement would open up British markets to US agricultural products including the controversial chickens.

Dr Fox said closer trade ties could boost prosperity in both countries and hit out at Brexit critics, claiming they were “dreaming” if they thought the UK could end up remaining in the European Union.

Asked if he would feel comfortable eating a chlorine-washed chicken, Dr Fox said: “In a debate which should be about how we make our contribution to global liberalisation and the increased prosperity of both the UK, the US and our trading partners, the complexities of those – the continuity agreements, the short-term gains that we may make, the opportunities we have and our ability to work jointly towards both a free-trade agreement and WTO liberalisation – the British media are obsessed with chlorine-washed chickens, a detail of the very end stage of one sector of a potential free trade agreement. I say no more than that.”

Dr Fox urged Remainers to accept the result of the referendum and help secure the best outcome for the UK rather than seek to “thwart” Brexit.

The prominent Brexiteer said: “Those who are still intent on trying to thwart the process, or seem to hope that something will magically appear that will change the referendum results, they are dreaming.”

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Liam Fox with US Trade Representative Ambassador Robert Lighthizer (Sait Serkan Gurbuz/AP)

Answering questions following a speech at the American Enterprise Institute conservative think tank, Dr Fox said it would be “optimistic” to think a free-trade deal with the European Union could be concluded by the time of Brexit in March 2019 but ministers were supportive of a transitional deal so that businesses would not face a cliff-edge change in the rules.

There was a “growing consensus” in Cabinet for an “implementation” phase, which would see the UK voluntarily keep some of the EU’s laws and rules, he said.

But he rejected Brussels’ demands for the European Court of Justice to guarantee the rights of EU citizens in the UK after Brexit, saying it was a “very strange view of jurisprudence”.

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A report warned poultry market access is likely to be a take-it-or-leave-it condition of an agreement between the UK and US (Anna Gowthorpe/PA)

Theresa May’s official spokesman said it was too early to discuss specific details of any trade deal, such as the issue of chlorinated chicken.

The spokesman was challenged at a regular Westminster media briefing over whether the Government was guaranteeing to maintain EU-level food standards after Brexit.

He said: “Our position when it comes to food is that maintaining the safety and public confidence in the food we eat is of the highest priority Any future trade deal must work for UK farmers, businesses and consumers.”

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Trade deal talks could be the next step in the UK's 'special relationship' with the US, Liam Fox said (Sean Dempsey/PA)

Labour MP Ben Bradshaw, a leading supporter of the Open Britain campaign, said: “The Government is putting the Fox in charge of the hen coop when it comes to food safety.

“This row about chlorine chicken is a direct result of the Government’s decision to leave the single market. They are so desperate for new trade deals to make up for some of the losses that they seem ready to compromise on the safety of the food we eat.”

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