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What’s the truth about rats’ hair and maggots in US food?

by Sam Ashworth-Hayes | 05.11.2019

Alongside chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef, Jeremy Corbyn is warning that the fruits of any post-Brexit trade deal with the US could include delights such as rat hairs in paprika and maggots in orange juice.

These examples are drawn from the US Food Defect Levels Handbook, which sets limits for contaminants beyond which legal action will automatically be taken. Canned citrus juice is defective if it has one or more maggots per 250ml and ground paprika if it has more than 11 rat hairs per 25g. It should be added that food producers can be prosecuted even if contaminants are below these levels if they are guilty of “poor manufacturing processes”.

The EU, on the other hand, has “no allowable limits of foreign bodies in food” or “published list of ‘tolerance’ levels”. Food sold in the bloc is expected to be clean and uncontaminated, although that doesn’t always mean that it is. In the UK, for instance, maintaining product standards is left to local authorities. As the Times notes, these don’t have “routine checks on product contamination”, and if a business has taken reasonable precautions to avoid contamination then it has a legal defence against prosecution. 

At the same time, Corbyn is correct to point out a significant difference in the regulatory philosophies. Chlorinated chicken is economical, but allows farmers to get away with keeping poultry in worse conditions. Pumping cattle full of growth hormones and antibiotics makes them grow faster, at the cost of worsening antibiotic resistance and risking the health of consumers. The EU takes a “farm to fork” approach which emphasises animal welfare and public health, and bans these techniques. The US, placing more emphasis on raw economics, doesn’t. 

The problem for Britain is that if we leave the EU, we will be caught between these two philosophies. The Trump administration has been clear that it wants the UK to give its farmers access to our market. But if we do that, the EU will be concerned about US goods entering the bloc through the back door. A US trade deal would mean checks on British agricultural products headed to the EU.

At the same time, Brexiters will want a US deal to show that leaving the EU has some advantage. That means that Donald Trump will have us over a barrel. He will have double leverage; we will be the smaller party, and we will be isolated and desperate to mitigate the damage of Brexit. The best way to avoid lower standards is to stay in the EU.

Edited by Hugo Dixon

One Response to “What’s the truth about rats’ hair and maggots in US food?”

  • Preaching to the converted once more. By the looks of it brexiteers need to grow funny things on their bodies due to cattle growth hormones and find rat mess and insects in their food, before it will enter their addled brains that they might have done something very stupid to themselves. I keep comparing it to the Titanic and the use of sufficient lifeboats; 50% of the UK population apparently need that sort of disasters before they accept reason.