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Chlorine-washed chicken: An OpenLearn reading list

Updated Tuesday 1st August 2017

As the prospects of a post-Brexit UK/US trade deal get caught up in the question of chickens washed in chlorine, here's a short guide to background reading on poultry standards

Chicken standing by a fence Creative commons image Icon Татьяна ВС under Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 license Which side of the fence will you come down on?

Why has chlorine-washed chicken suddenly become a Brexit issue?

In short, US and EU approaches to food standards vary in many places, but the question of the differential treatment of chickens has taken on a totemic role. Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox, in the US to have informal talks with Americans, sounded irritated by the focus. BBC News reports:

Liam Fox has downplayed talk that a future US-UK trade deal after Brexit could be threatened by disagreements over chlorinated chicken imports.

The international trade secretary said the issue of whether the current UK ban on chlorine-washed poultry would be lifted was "a detail of the very end stage of one sector" of future talks.

[...]

Asked whether he would be happy eating chlorinated chicken, Mr Fox suggested that the British media was "obsessed" by the issue and asked whether reporters would be shunning US chicken during their visit.

In what he described as the "complex" process of negotiating an over-arching deal to advance the mutual prosperity of the US and UK people, he suggested the issue ranked low down on his list of current priorities.

Read the full report at BBC News: Liam Fox downplays UK-US chlorinated chicken differences

What's the problem with chlorine-washed chicken?

BECU, the European consumer body, described the differences in approach between the US and the EU during the talks about a trade deal between the America and Europe:

The poultry industry on both sides of the Atlantic faces the critical question of how to produce safe meat for consumers which won’t contaminate them with harmful bacteria such as salmonella or campylobacter.

For years, in the US, instead of preventing that chickens get infected with pathogens during all stages of rearing and slaughter, the poultry industry has resorted to chemicals to eliminate bacteria at the end of the meat production chain. In other words, chemical washes aim to make up for inadequate hygiene on farms and abattoirs.

In contrast, the EU has chosen another strategy to fight meat-borne bacteria. The philosophy of the ‘farm to fork’ approach is essentially based on the wise proverb prevention is better than cure.

The farm to fork approach requires a series of steps all along the production chain to ensure food sold to consumers ultimately is safe. In the case of poultry, hygiene stipulations at farm level include the use of dedicated clothing and footwear by farm workers to avoid bringing bacteria into poultry houses. This must be complemented with proper transportation conditions as well as hygienic slaughtering and processing practices.

Read in full at BECU.eu: What is wrong with chlorinated chicken?

Does this mean American chicken is less safe to eat?

No - as The Grocer explains, not even Europeans opposed to chlorine washing believe it's unfit to eat a chicken treated this way:

US regulators are unequivocal: yes, it’s safe. The USDA has approved several antimicrobial rinses for use in poultry processing, including chlorine dioxide, acidified sodium chlorite, trisodium phosphate and peroxyacids, and meat treated with such rinses is considered safe for consumers to eat.

And, in fact, their EU colleagues agree. The European food safety regulator EFSA looked at the issue of chlorine treatment and found “chemical substances in poultry are unlikely to pose an immediate or acute health risk for consumers.”

Read in full at The Grocer: Chlorinated chicken explained: why do the Americans treat their poultry with chlorine?

What do the public think?

A 2012 piece in the journal Food Control exploring how consumers in the UK reacted to various approaches to reducing the presnce of Campylobacter in food discovered a lack of support for chlorine washing, and that it might take more than marketing to shift the reluctance to embrace chlorinated chooks:

[R]isk communication can alter public acceptability of interventions to reduce Campylobacter. However, this study found that >50% of participants would never find irradiation or chemical wash acceptable. Even if a large awareness campaign was mounted it might not be cost effective or achieve the desired effect of changing views on the acceptability of these interventions.

Read the full research at Aberdeen University Research Archive: Food Control - Consumer acceptability of interventions to reduce Campylobacter in the poultry food chain

Is the European objection to chlorine-washed chicken a new thing?

Not at all - in fact, the question of what happens to chickens has been an issue for the entire life of the single market. In 1998, the University of Delaware's Department of Food and Resource Economics looked at whether the rules were, in effect, a trade barrier :

Until 1997, imports of meat products to the EU were subject to national legislation of the 15 EU members. Because of the 1992 single market program, the EU moved from national to EU-wide legilsation in 1997. The EU Commission started negotiating new VEAs [Veterinary Equivalence Agreements] with third countries in 1993.

Negotiations with the US proved particularly difficult. After much verbal warfare, EU and US negotiators reached a VEA covering pet food and all meats other than poultrymeat in April 1997. A VEA for poultry was not reached because the EU considers the US' use of chlorinated water to decontaminate poultry carcaseses as unsafe and ineffetive.

[...]

The US maintains that the EU regulation is a disguised trade barrier and that chlorine-treated poultrymeat is safe.

In passing, the authors touched briefly on an argument that chlorine-washed chickens might pose less of a risk to human health through meeting more stringent standards:

US producers also argue that they need to use chlorine to meet stricter domestic rules on bacteria levels.

Read in full at core.ac.uk: Tian Xia and Silvia Weyerbrock: The case of polutry trade between the US and the EU

Are the rules the main block to a US-UK trade deal in agriculture?

Here's where Liam Fox has a point. The real challenge to a deal to making a post-Brexit agreement is less likely to be details of what happens post-slaughterhouse, and more on questions of money. Writing at the Institute For Government, Oliver Ilott suggests the main barrier to cross is the tariff barrier:

 A trade deal between the US and UK may attempt to remove tariffs in areas where they are high. These are almost all in agriculture.

On the US side, there are 22 import duty rates above 100%, all on agricultural products. This makes some agricultural goods produced outside the US very expensive for US customers, and limits the amount of trade UK farmers do with the US. It will be the same story for the UK if it adopts the same tariffs that the EU currently levies on all non-member states, where the highest duties are all for agricultural products, including:

whey and modified whey (635%)
prepared or preserved poultry (289% and 143%)
prepared or preserved mushrooms (184% and 160%)
live poultry (156%)

If Theresa May wants to trade away farmers’ protections in a trade deal with the US, she will encounter significant opposition. Agriculture is protected in both countries because it is politically sensitive: farmers are a powerful lobby. High EU tariffs protect UK farmers from competition with cheap imports (whilst raising prices for consumers).

Read the full opinion piece at the IoG: Four uncomfortable truths about a quick deal on UK–US trade

 

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