WHY did the chicken need waterwings? As the prompt for a punchline, admittedly this lacks zip. Yet there is something decidedly funny about the Brexit Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, pleading with the British public to stop its “obsession” with chlorine-washed chickens, the thought of which is leaving a sour taste in more than a few mouths. Roald Dahl would have relished the image of Dr Fox opening the door of the American hen coop and letting into the country millions of fowl that have spent hours bathed in a chlorine solution far stronger than that used in our swimming pools.

As free trade negotiations with the United States get under way, the prospect of these unappetising birds landing on our plates potentially threatens a deal on which hangs not merely the reputation of Dr Fox, but the essence of the whole Brexit project. In the run-up to the referendum we were promised that, liberated at last from the dictats of a European bureaucracy whose mantra was “precaution, precaution, precaution”, our post-EU world would allow us to roam like Charlie in the chocolate factory, choosing the sweetest deals and the tastiest terms.

No wonder Dr Fox and his ilk are disgruntled that the public – the ingrates! – are not thrilled at the prospect of eating poultry that, since 1997, has been banned here. Or beef treated with growth hormones, also currently proscribed. Asked if he would personally be willing to eat a chemicalised bird, Dr Fox slyly dodged the question. Not for him a photo opportunity coaxing a youngster to gnaw a drumstick to prove how safe it was. Not even a politician with the memory of a goldfish could forget the trouble Agriculture Minister John Gummer got into when trying to feed his four-year-old daughter a beefburger during the Mad Cow Disease crisis.

It was eerily timely, then, that the Government was this week urged by the Adam Smith Institute to end the poultry ban, thereby sending the message that Britain is willing to make “sensible compromises” to reach a swift trade deal. Wasn’t the purpose of Brexit to throw off the shackles imposed by a nanny superstate? Wasn’t it about freedom, and the choice of a better, not a worse, way to exist – and eat?

Studies show there is relatively little risk in consuming chicken doused in chlorine. Apparently, such a meal contains the equivalent of a gulpful of water from the municipal pool. Some of us, for whom approaching the diving board is scarier than walking the plank, have consumed pints of the stuff when trying to stay afloat, and survived, more or less. Nor, according to taste trials, is there much to tell a cooked US chicken from its European cousin, until it has been languishing in the fridge for a few days.

That, however, is not the point. The swimming pool chicken is totemic of a far bigger issue. Brexit was supposed to make Britain great – again. Yet within weeks of opening discussions, we are being asked to lower our standards and set aside legitimate fears, in order to show eagerness to make new trade partners. Dr Fox and the Brexit negotiators are asking us to accept what is literally unpalatable, inferring that it is small-minded and obstructive of anyone to complain. One’s reply is that, since high-profile consumer groups in America have also urged banning their own hormone-raised beef within the US, we are neither parochial nor neurotic in not wanting to touch it. While we’re on the subject, is the US going to lift its ban on haggis any time soon? I doubt it. If they are entitled to their precautionary measures, so most emphatically are we.

Over all of this hangs the serious question of animal welfare. Standards in the UK at present are higher than most. That is not the case in the US, or in other countries with whom we will soon be forging deals. Is Dr Fox’s attitude symptomatic of the way these talks will be conducted? Will he turn a blind eye to the conditions in which animals are reared and slaughtered, and the quality of meat we import in return for advantageous terms? On the evidence so far, there’s reason to suspect he will.

Indeed, it begins to look likely that in terms of food imports, we will feel the loss of strict EU safety nets more swiftly and keenly than in any other aspect of our daily lives. Brexit was originally sold as a golden ticket for making things better. If its petitioners meant what they said when campaigning, then they have not just an obligation but a high moral duty to impose the most stringent safeguards on our foodstuffs, and all other imported goods, be they cutlets, cars or cookers. In short, to improve health and compassion and safety. If, instead, they abandon our standards and principles at the first hint of an impasse, then that truly would be chicken.