Why is Jamie Oliver so against freedom of choice?

29 September 2020

12:58 AM

29 September 2020

12:58 AM

It will involve hundreds of hours of haggling over thousands of different products. It will have to pass torturous debates in Congress. And it will have to survive an election cycle or two. There are lots of hurdles in the way of a British trade deal with the United States. But now we have perhaps the greatest obstacle of all. Jamie Oliver doesn’t like it.

Fresh from tidying up the collapse of his restaurant chain, and reminding us all how to get through lockdown by rustling up a tasty pasta bake, the chef is back with a new campaign, this time against ‘sub-standard’ American food. There is a problem, however. There is a very simple solution to the different ways food is produced on either side of the Atlantic. It is called freedom of choice — and it’s surprising that Jamie and his celebrity pals can’t see that.

There is no question that food will be one of the most contentious issues in any trade deal with America. The US produces, and exports, a lot of agricultural produce, and has often been locked out of the EU market by high tariffs. Its negotiators will no doubt want more freedom for their farmers in a trade deal. We will be able to sell them more things and with lower tariffs. In return, they will be able to sell us more chicken, pork and wheat, alongside planes, software, and movies. That’s how free trade deals work.

According to Jamie, however, that threatens to undermine British farming standards, flood the market with rubbish food, and make children even fatter than they already are. We should ‘have a race to the top not to the bottom’ he argues pithily. And yet as is so often, Jamie seems to have got hold of the wrong end of the turkey twizzler. Although the US has different standards on food production from the EU, there is no convincing evidence that they are worse. They just happen to be different, which is a slightly different thing.

If anyone is worried about American food — and they are perfectly entitled to be if they want to — then there is a simple and elegant solution. Just require it to be clearly labelled. When you browse the supermarket aisles you can see whether a chicken has come from the UK, the EU, the US, or somewhere else entirely. And then you can choose one or the other, in much the same way you might choose corn-fed, free range, organic, or cheap, battery-farmed. Some people might go for the more expensive local one. Some will go for the cheaper American import. But they can make their own decisions, based on their own preferences, and we can do a trade deal with the US with all the benefits that will bring.

The problem is that Jamie doesn’t believe anyone should be free to make their own choices. He is determined that what we eat should be largely be dictated by a self-appointed group of celebrity chefs accountable to no-one apart from themselves, and possibly the publicity department of their publishers. That’s up to him — but there is no reason for the rest of us to listen to him.

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