The “alarmism” over chlorinated chicken in the UK agri-food industry and wider public must come to an end, the head of a trade commission set up by the country’s government has said.

Tim Smith, the former Tesco executive and head of the UK’s Food Standards Agency, has been appointed chair of the UK government’s Trade and Agriculture Commission, which will advise on the impact the country’s trade deals could have on its agri-food sector.

In an op-ed in The Daily Telegraph, Smith, a non-executive director at UK pork and poultry processor Cranswick, said the country’s “arrival as an independent trading nation” in the wake of Brexit “was always going to be accompanied by a solid public debate about where our food comes from and how it is produced”.

“The decisions this government is making now will in part shape the future not just of British farming, but the whole country, so it is only right that the voices of industry and the British public are heard. Our trade policy must take those broad range of views into account. It should be informed by evidence, expert opinion and crafted in close consultation with the whole supply chain. There is no reason why it cannot be debated in a sensible and level-headed way,” Smith wrote.

However, he added: “The alarmism recently around issues like imports of chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef – both of which are banned in the UK – do neither the industry nor the public any favours. Having a clear-eyed perspective on what is fair and works for consumers, farmers, food producers and animals is important. This is a time for cool heads and thoughtful discussion.”

Last month, The Daily Telegraph said UK government ministers were reportedly considering letting products such as chlorinated chicken into British supermarkets but would apply tariffs to them to protect UK-based farmers from competition, apparently back-tracking from numerous pledges to bar the food from entering the country, alarming some MPs, farming groups and campaigners.

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By GlobalData

Supporters of Brexit have argued the ability for the UK to strike trade deals independently outside the EU will lead to lower food prices in the country. Others are concerned an agreement with, say, the US may necessitate the UK having to accept imports of products such as chlorine-washed chicken. Such concern is also found among some who voted for Brexit, including Conservative MP Theresa Villiers, who as the then Environment Secretary in January, told farmers: “We will not be importing chlorinated chicken.”

The practice in parts of the US supply chain to wash poultry in chlorine has been held up by some UK food advocates as an example of the lower food standards in America that may have to be accepted in the event of a trade deal between the two countries. The controversy over the practice, opponents argue, is less about the washing itself and more about whether its use indicates low hygiene standards elsewhere in the chain.

Responding to Smith’s op-ed, one Conservative Party MP, Simon Hoare, who opposes chlorine-washed chicken from the US entering the UK, tweeted: “It’s not the chlorine that’s the issue it’s the shit animal welfare standards that REQUIRES the use of chlorine to render the chicken consumable. Better standards = no chlorine.”

US poultry industry professionals have defended the practice, while, according to data published by the US National Chicken Council (NCC), chlorine is used in rinses and sprays in less than 5% of processing plants in the US. Its usage has also been steadily declining, with other agents such as peracetic acid (PAA), cetylpyridinium chloride (CPC), acidified sodium chlorite (ASC), organic acid rinses and bromine being used.

Last month, Robert Lighthizer, Donald Trump’s top trade negotiator, described opposition in the UK to imports of US-produced chlorinated chicken as “thinly-veiled protectionism”.

Lighthizer said: “The United States has the best agriculture in the world. It has the safest, highest standards and I think we shouldn’t confuse science with consumer preference.”

A number of major supermarket chains operating in the UK have stated they would not sell chlorine-washed chicken from the US.

The new Trade and Agriculture Commission includes representatives from the farming industry, retailers and the UK food-manufacturing sector.

George Eustice, the UK’s Environment Secretary said: “We have been consistently clear that we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards in all of our trade negotiations. The Agriculture and Trade Commission will ensure that the UK’s agricultural industry, our support for farmers and our commitment to high welfare standards are maintained.”

UK International Trade Secretary Liz Truss added: “My officials and I are working round the clock to ensure that any trade deal we strike brings the very best opportunities to the UK’s farming community. We recognise the importance of engaging with the agriculture industry and seeking expert advice, which is why we have set up the Commission. We are putting British farming first and giving our producers the best opportunity to export their world class food abroad and grow their businesses.”

Minette Batters, the president of the National Farmers’ Union, said the establishment of the commission was “a hugely important development in ensuring UK farming’s high standards of animal welfare and environmental protection are not undermined in future trade deals”.

She added: “The role of the independent Chair will be critical, and we look forward to working with him in the weeks ahead to ensure the Commission meets the expectations and ambitions of all the consumers, campaigners and farmers who have demonstrated over recent months how important this issue is.”

just-food analysis: Chlorinated chicken – what’s everyone really talking about?