UK anti-obesity drive at risk from new US trade deal, doctors warn

Denis Campbell Health policy editor
The US government has a record of hostility towards healthy eating measures such as traffic light labelling, doctors say. Photograph: PA

Britain’s post-Brexit trade deal with the United States could lead to even higher rates of obesity through the import of American foods high in fat and sugar, children’s doctors have warned.

US “hostility” towards measures aimed at promoting healthier eating habits, such as traffic light labelling, is also a major threat to the government’s anti-obesity drive, it has been claimed.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) is urging ministers to resist pressure to unwind key public health measures in their quest for a future transatlantic trade deal.

“We’re concerned by the evidence of US hostility in trade talks towards countries that want to set their own domestic agenda on reducing sugar intake, particularly the push [from the US] to keep traffic light labelling voluntary. We can’t allow trade talks to undermine efforts to tackle childhood obesity,” said Prof Russell Viner, the RCPCH president.

“Children’s health outcomes are much worse in the US than in many other comparable countries, and we don’t want to import these along with the sugar.”

Viner’s warning comes as Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, prepares to fly to Washington this week for talks about the shape of a future UK/US trade deal after Britain has left the EU.

We mustn’t sell off our children’s health in exchange for a trade deal with the US

Kath Dalmeny, chief executive of the food charity Sustain

Donald Trump wants US farmers to be able to export more of their produce to Britain after Brexit and has railed against the EU for its “very unfair” and “very, very protectionist” policies.

Previous discussions have been overshadowed by a row over whether or not Britain in future would have to accept chlorinated chicken from the US as part of any agreement.

Sustain, the food charity, highlighted a US government document on striking trade deals with other countries – the 2017 National Trade Estimate Report on Foreign Trade Barriers – as evidence of US “aggression” towards countries it trades with having tougher food rules than apply in America.

“The US record on trade is clear. They export corn syrup, processed junk food and sugar. And along with it obesity, diabetes and diet-related disease,” said Kath Dalmeny, Sustain’s chief executive.

“We’ve been told that No 10 is preparing to update its obesity strategy. Part of that must be to get us all eating more healthily.

“But a sugary, junk-filled trade deal will drive a coach and horses through it all. We mustn’t sell off our children’s health in exchange for a trade deal with the US. Trade deals must put public health first.”

Donald Trump eating a pork chop. He wants US farmers to be able to export more produce to the UK after Brexit. Photograph: Jim Young/Reuters

Recent research by the Harvard University school of public health pinpointed free trade deals involving the US as a key factor in a process of “nutrition transition” – from a traditional native diet to a much more western one – which is producing greater obesity in countries as a result of globalisation.

“Trade liberalisation gives people access to different types of food and, often, more high-calorie foods,” it said. “It also removes barriers to foreign investment in food distribution and allows multinational companies and fast-food chains to expand into new countries.”

The authors cite China as an example of where globalisation has made low-cost, high-calorie food more available. Chinese consumption of meat and dairy products more then tripled between 1989 and 1997, while higher intake of vegetable oil between 1989 and 2004 – thanks to its fall in price – means that Chinese people now consume an average of 183 calories a day from that source.

While globalisation has improved the life of many people in the developing world “it has also increased access to cheap, unhealthy foods and brought with it more sedentary, urban lifestyles. From a public health perspective the combination of these changes is creating a perfect storm of a catastrophic and costly rise in obesity and obesity-related disease.”

There is also concern that Britain could be forced to accept lower-quality milk from cows with infected udders as part of a future UK/US trade deal.

US rules on milk production allow it to contain more than double the amount of somatic cells – white blood cells that fight bacterial infections – than are found in British milk. The US dairy industry wants the UK to relax its standards and has lobbied the Trump administration about the future deal.

Milk containing a high number of somatic cells is poorer nutritionally and of a lower quality, and can suggest low animal welfare standards.

“In general, animal welfare standards in the UK are higher than in almost any other country, including the US,” Peter Plate, a lecturer at the Royal Veterinary College, said last month.

“So a free trade deal has the potential danger to either dilute welfare standards here or put UK farmers into an uncompetitive position. We must avoid a race to the bottom.”