Belfast Telegraph

Warning that chlorine chicken could threaten 'thousands of jobs' in Northern Ireland

By Michael Sheils McNamee

One of Northern Ireland's largest trade unions Unite has warned that the liberalisation of trade rules post-Brexit "has the potential to threaten thousands of jobs" in the agri-food sector.

This comes as part of a backlash to comments made in the United States on Monday by the UK's International Trade Secretary Liam Fox who appeared to downplay the potential risk of allowing chlorine-washed chicken to be sold in the UK.

Asked about a potential future trade deal between the United States and Britain, Dr Fox said that there was "no health issue" with the product and that it was "too early" to comment on specifics of a future trade agreement.

The Cabinet position of International Trade Secretary was created in the wake of the 2016 Brexit vote, with a focus on carving out Britain's post-Brexit trading relationships with its international partners.

Reflecting on the comments, Unite's regional officer with responsibility for agri-food Sean McKeever said that the move could put the jobs of workers at poultry meat producer Moy Park at risk, with the majority of the company's Northern Irish staff being represented by Unite.

Around half of Moy Park's 12,000-strong UK workforce are based in Northern Ireland.

Mr McKeever said that the agri-food sector in the region is "disproportionately exposed" to the impacts of Brexit, with fears that cross-border trade could be threatened with "delays, red-tape and even tariffs" if free trade with the EU is lost, and that in this context businesses in the sector should be trying to make the most of import-substitution opportunities.

"The comments made by Dr Fox, the International Trade Secretary, in the United States cast a dark shadow over such opportunities," said Mr McKeever.

"He has gone as far as suggesting that a post-Brexit trade deal might allow for the import of chlorinated chicken from the US; a move which would mark a sharp liberalisation of trade from the situation where, as part of the EU, such imports are banned due to concerns for human health.

"There are broader concerns that any Tory-negotiated trade deal with the US could open the door to foodstuffs produced with hormones and insecticides casually used by US-based agri-food multinationals but which are restricted at present in the UK."

Mr McKeever added that Northern Irish produce is known for its quality-assurance, and a deviation from this "has the potential to threaten thousands of jobs both in processing, distribution and the supply sectors, across the rural economy".

Earlier this week Mr Fox responded to the controversy by saying that the media were "obsessed" with the issue of chlorine-washed chickens, and according to the Guardian, Theresa May's official spokesperson declined to comment on any hypothetical trade deals.

However, when questioned earlier on BBC Radio Four's Today Programme, Environment Secretary Michael Gove definitively ruled out chlorinated chickens being sold in the United Kingdom, saying: "This is something on which all members of the government are agreed, that we are not going to dilute our high animal welfare standards or our high environmental standards in pursuit of any trade deal."

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