“Given the chance, they’ll slash food standards to match those of the United States, where what are called “acceptable levels” of rat hairs in paprika and maggots in orange juice are allowed.”
Jeremy Corbyn, 5 November 2019
“Their rules specify ‘acceptable levels’ of rat hairs in paprika, insect fragments in peanut butter, maggots in orange juice and rat droppings in ginger. The right level should be zero.”
Barry Gardiner, 7 October 2019
Last week Jeremy Corbyn warned of rat hair-laced paprika and maggoty orange juice if the UK signs a trade deal with the USA. It’s been a line often used by Labour to criticise government policy.
In certain areas of food hygiene the US has less stringent rules than the EU and after Brexit the UK could move towards lower food safety standards as part of a trade deal with the US.
But illustrating this by claiming that these particular contaminants are “allowed” in the US—and implying that they’re not in the UK—is a misreading of the facts.
(In the interests of full disclosure: in a previous article fact checking a Labour press release on this issue, we also used the phrase “acceptable levels” to describe these rules, which was a careless use of language. We have corrected this piece.)
These levels are the limits at which point the US requires mandatory enforcement action to be taken against food manufacturers. Action can also be taken against manufacturers if the amount of contaminants in their food falls below these levels. There are no similar enforceable limits on levels of contaminants like this within the EU.
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What are the rules in the USA?
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines levels of contaminants in certain foodstuffs, above which it automatically takes enforcement action. It says that contamination below these levels “pose no inherent hazard to health”.
But describing these limits as “acceptable levels” is not a fully accurate description of what these levels represent.
The FDA says: “It is incorrect to assume that because the FDA has an established defect action level for a food commodity, the food manufacturer need only stay just below that level.
“The levels represent limits at which FDA will regard the food product "adulterated"; and subject to enforcement action.”
The FDA also says: “Poor manufacturing practices may result in enforcement action without regard to the action level.”
So essentially, if food is contaminated below those levels, enforcement action can still be taken against poor manufacturing practices. Above those levels enforcement action is mandatory.
How does this compare to the UK?
Labour is making the point that the US has lower food standards when it comes to allowing contaminants like maggots in food. Barry Gardiner emphasised that “the right level should be zero”.
But there are no limits in the UK or EU on what level of contamination warrants enforcement action, so implying that the level in the UK is zero is wrong.
While maximum levels are set for various harmful chemical and biological contaminants, a Food Standards Agency spokesperson told us:
“In EU Food Law there are no allowable limits of foreign bodies in food and there is no published list of ‘tolerance’ levels of foreign bodies / matter in food.”
The US does have less stringent standards than the EU when it comes to certain food production protocols. For example the US uses chlorine washes and growth hormones in meat production.
The US also has different food safety processes. For example, in the EU it is mandatory for food manufacturers to a have a safety plan based on Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) principles.
In the USA this is only mandatory for some products (although juice is one such product.)
In practical terms, it’s not clear how big a difference this makes. For example, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Food Security Index scored the USA 99.4 out of 100 for food safety, just shy of the UK’s perfect score.
And to suggest that simply changing safety standards will lead to a rise in contaminants ignores a myriad of other important factors including the power of supermarkets to impose food standards on suppliers, and the likelihood that an orange juice brand known for having maggots in its products may well be forced out of business by consumer choice quicker than enforcement by the Food Standards Agency.
Even putting that aside, while the prospect of maggoty orange juice is certainly unappealing, it’s also worth saying that there’s nothing inherently unsafe about it: it’s just gross, rather than actually dangerous. The FDA standards describe the significance of these examples as “aesthetic” rather than a “potential health hazard”.
It may also be worth noting that, from figs to food colouring, many of us end up eating insect material by choice anyway.