According to The Guardian, Prime Minister Theresa May’s official spokesman said maintaining safety and public confidence in food was of the highest priority but repeatedly refused to answer questions on whether this could mean allowing US chlorine-washed chicken.
Concern comes ahead of a visit by trade secretary Liam Fox to the US to discuss the possibility of a trade deal between the two countries after Brexit.
It is expected that the American farming industry will push for agriculture to be included in any food deal. This could lead to chlorine-washed chicken, hormone-fed beef and GM crops being imported into the UK for the first time.
Washing poultry in chlorine is banned in the EU, with guidance suggesting the practice could lead to falling food standards.
This is because abattoirs could rely on it as a decontaminant and the chemical washes could be used by producers to make meat appear fresher than it is.
When questioned, Downing Street declined to get into the “specifics” and “hypotheticals” of trade deals with the US. However, officials have insisted that any future trade deal must work for UK farmers, businesses and consumers.
A source close to Mr Fox told the Telegraph he believed that “Americans have been eating [chlorinated chicken] perfectly safely for years” and that any “meaningful” trade deal with the US would have to include agriculture.
Ben Bradshaw, a Labour MP and supporter of the Open Britain campaign group, said: “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.
“The government must not water down rules that protect consumers, and neither should they follow any policy that undermines our own farmers. If they want to boost our economy, they should do so by keeping Britain in the single market, rather than selling ourselves short in desperation for new trade deals.”
The Adam Smith Institute, a freemarket think tank, has argued in a report that accessing the US poultry market is likely to be a major bone of contention in trade negotiations.
The thinktank said the UK should be prepared to adapt its standards, pointing to an assessment by the European Food Safety Authority that produce which is subject to chemical rinses, including chlorine dioxide, is safe to eat.
“Agreeing to US poultry imports would help to secure a quick US trade deal, and bring down costs for British households,” the report says.
“European opposition to US agricultural exports has held up trade talks for years. By scrapping the ban on chlorinated chicken imports, the government will send a signal to potential trading partners across the globe that the UK remains an open-facing and free trading nation.”
However, Michael Gove, the environment secretary and leading Brexit supporter, gave a speech last week insisting that food safety standards must not be lowered as the UK leaves the EU.