LONDON (Reuters) - Britain will not accept imports of chlorinated chicken in pursuit of a trade deal with the United States after Brexit, its environment minister said on Wednesday, days after a trade minister tried to play down public health concerns.
The issue of chlorine-washed chicken, which is produced in the United States but not allowed in the European Union, is high-profile in Britain where many fear that a U.S. trade deal could lead to imports of food with lower safety standards.
With talks to leave the EU at a very early stage, it is a also a rare example of a tangible product that could be affected by Brexit being discussed by top ministers, who have given dissonant signals about the issue.
Michael Gove, the minister for the environment, food and rural affairs, was asked in a BBC radio interview whether U.S. chlorinated chicken would be allowed in Britain as part of a future U.S. trade deal after Britain leaves the EU.
"No," he said. "I've made it perfectly clear, and indeed this is something on which all members of the government are agreed, that we are not going to dilute our high animal welfare standards or our high environmental standards in pursuit of any trade deal."
Speaking later on Wednesday, finance minister Philip Hammond said Britain would not relax food safety or animal welfare standards. But decisions on specific products would need to wait until actual trade talks, he added.
As a European Union member, Britain is not free to agree trade deals with any third parties, but a deal with the United States will be a top priority after Britain leaves the EU in March 2019.
Trade Secretary Liam Fox has been criticised in recent days for dismissing the issue of chlorinated chicken as "a detail at the very end-stage of one sector of a potential free trade agreement" with the United States.
In his interview, Gove sought to defend Fox's comments.
"The trade secretary quite rightly pointed out that of course this issue is important but we mustn't concentrate just on this one issue when we look at the huge potential that a trade deal can bring," he said.
U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday praised ongoing work on a post-Brexit trade deal with Britain and criticised the EU's trade relationship with the United States.
"Working on major Trade Deal with the United Kingdom. Could be very big & exciting. JOBS! The E.U. is very protectionist with the U.S. STOP!" Trump wrote on Twitter.
(Reporting by Estelle Shirbon and David Milliken; editing by Guy Faulconbridge)