The EU thinks that chicken washed in chemicals is dangerous. The US says it’s completely normal. What’s the truth?
Feathers, feet and internal organs are taken out. The chicken is hung upside down, its legs in metal clamps, before it is jolted forward along an automated production line toward a towering aluminium spraying unit. Multiple nozzles, both in front and behind the poor bird, spurt a clear chlorine rinse that douses it from breast to thigh, solution dripping from its fleshy wings before off it zooms again. Next stop: packaging and sale.
It’s a process that takes no more than a few seconds and one that has been par for the course at US chicken processors for decades. But the prospect of these same chlorine-washed chickens reaching UK supermarkets as part of a new trade deal with the US has become politically toxic.
The US currently exports around $13 billion of its food and drink to the EU each year, including nuts, spirits, processed fruits and beef. But Europe’s doors have remained shut to the vast majority of American chickens for 23 years, due to concerns around chlorine washing. Now, as the UK finds its way outside the purview of EU law, the US poultry industry is hoping to make a comeback in Britain.
UK farmers, animal welfare campaigners, environmentalists and politicians have all insisted that to allow US chicken imports would represent an unacceptable degradation in food standards. The government has so far dodged demands to take an unequivocal position. Last month it was the EU itself to up the stakes: a leaked document from Brussels showed that EU officials wanted the UK to align with European standards in any future negotiations on food. That would include keeping the ban on chlorinated chicken.
Chlorine first divided political opinion in 1995, as the EU was still recovering from a symphony of embarrassing – and deathly – food safety scandals. In 1981, 300 had died after toxic olive oil made its way onto supermarket shelves in Spain. In 1988, UK health minister Edwina Currie sparked outrage when she claimed that nearly all British eggs contained salmonella, causing a dramatic drop in sales. Later that year came the slaughter of 4.4 million British cattle due to the infamous mad cow disease – which would go on to kill 156 people.
Each time, the EU faced criticism for its perceived failure to regulate the pesticides, food-borne pathogens, or manufacturing chemicals that were provoking crisis after crisis. Its response was to take a far more proactive role in food safety. Legislation had varied between member states, but in 1995 the EU introduced a new law that placed direct responsibility on all food and drink producers to implement the principle of HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points). Developed in the US to help Nasa astronauts avoid food poisoning in space, HACCP required meticulous biological and chemical controls at each stage of production. For the EU agricultural industry, the adoption of the policy pushed up standards across the board: from staff hygiene, to the temperature of cattle sheds, to how many broiler chickens could be packed in a barn.
It was a shift to prevention over cure, says Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University London. And it prised the EU and US’ food standards even further apart than they already were. Across the Atlantic, Lang says, the regulatory regime was “centred on a system of intensive production with a cure at the end.” Cures included feeding pigs and cows with growth hormones to stimulate milk and meat production; or the widespread use of antibiotics; or – you guessed it – rinsing off slaughtered chickens in chlorine.
In the 1820s, chlorine started being used to retard the decomposition of animal intestines turned into violin strings. It quickly caught on as a disinfectant, and by the early 1900s it was everywhere: in breweries to eliminate wild yeasts, in the shellfish industry to wash clams, and in the US military to control black mould growing on potatoes. In 1954, a US scientist published an extensive study on how spray-washing poultry carcasses with a chlorine solution could lower bacterial count by up to 80 per cent. In 1975, the country’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (an agency of the US Department of Agriculture) started issuing licenses for experimental use of chlorinated sprays at commercial chicken processors, which up to that point had been simply using hot water. Intermittent concerns were raised about how export markets might react, but chlorine’s effectiveness won through. Its use became widespread.
Chlorine isn’t the only chicken-rinsing chemical available in the US: in fact, only about ten per cent of American processors now use it, while others resort to bromine or peracetic acid (made with vinegar). But chlorine has traditionally been seen as one of the safest, with no more than 50mg added to a litre of water when used to bathe carcasses. It’s why it is used to treat almost all drinking water in the UK.
Still, chlorine was simply incompatible with the new food philosophy the EU had come to adopt in the 1990s. Using a chemical rinse was seen as a cop-out, a dangerous shortcut.
“[It] removes incentives for farmers to develop good sanitation in their flocks and neglects good manufacturing practice in the whole production line,” the EU’s Scientific Veterinary Committee said in 1996. The horrified EU commissioned a string of studies on the matter, all of which ended up alleging that chlorine could cover up dubious practices taking place upstream. It was no big surprise when, in 1997, an EU directive banned any chicken processed with a PRT. At the stroke of a pen, huge volumes of US poultry imports were banished from Europe.
The move didn’t go down well across the pond, not least as it had suspiciously coincided with increasing pressure from European farmers to boost the competitiveness of their livestock via tariff incentives and compensatory payments. The anti-chlorine edict was, many believed in the US, just the latest example of EU protectionism.
For the US chicken industry it was an economic blow. Currently the sector produces around nine billion chickens each year, eclipsing figures for pork, lamb and beef. It has accomplished that via rapidly scaling up from small, segmented farms in the 1950s to mammoth commercial facilities today, many housing hundreds of thousands of birds. It is in fact the biggest broiler industry in the world, with 25,000 farmers supplying 42 billion pounds of chicken meat to approximately 30 companies. It is the second largest chicken exporter after Brazil, shipping overseas 17 per cent of its production every year.
Before 1997 the US had exported around $58m (£44m) worth of poultry to 15 EU countries. But by 2011, that had fallen down to $13m (£10m), the vast bulk of which was only passing through Europe on its way to another market. It’s estimated that, given the growth of demand for chicken in the years since, American poultry farmers now lose out on around $200-300m of potential exports to the EU each year.
America’s Big Chicken finds that, unsurprisingly, unjust. They say chlorine-washing is not a cover-up for lower food standards, and that science actually encourages the usage of chlorinated water in the food industry. A website run by the National Chicken Council, a trade association, defends that “the use of antimicrobials is only one step in a long food safety process. Its use is not a silver bullet but one tool in the toolbox”. A toolbox that, it says, also includes strict sanitation measures, vaccinations, and inspections.
“If there was something wrong with it, our federal inspection systems would not be allowing us to use that,” Zippy Duvall, head of the American Farm Bureau and a US poultry farmer said last year in an interview with BBC Radio 4. That is fair enough – even if the sheer size and the scale of political donations of the US poultry industry raise questions about its influence on policy and regulation. In the current 2020 election cycle alone, poultry processor Mountaire Corp has donated $4m already, more than any other agricultural business.
Over the years, an indignant US has fought back. Repeatedly. The late 1990s were dominated by an ongoing tit-for-tat over trade between the US and EU. Following both the 1997 EU ban on chlorinated chicken and the 1989 ban on hormone-fed beef, the US issued retaliatory sanctions on EU products and complained to the WTO that the EU was failing to make decisions that were scientifically justified.
In 2002, the US changed tack and asked the EU to reconsider the use of just four chemical rinses on poultry, including chlorine. The European Food Safety Agency agreed and, in 2005, it concluded that chlorine in fact posed no health risk. But a subsequent proposal by the European Commission, in 2008, to lift the ban was met with outrage. MEPs, European farmers and environmental NGOs, such as Greenpeace, accused the Commission of buckling under US pressure. One UK MEP said that such a move would transform EU citizens into “guinea pigs.” The proposal was promptly shelved.
A year later the US took its fight to the WTO claiming that, yet again, the EU was failing to provide any scientific basis for its anti-chlorinated chicken stance. A panel was selected to hear the case but has yet to convene. Filed at the tail end of the George W. Bush presidency, it appears it wasn’t pursued as aggressively under the Obama and Trump administrations.
Interestingly, since the original 1997 decision, chlorinated chicken has become about much more than chlorine and chicken. To the EU, the ban signifies a fundamental difference of opinion on how governments should regulate food safety. “Food is a trust relationship and there are very different traditions on how to deal with that,” says Lang. “It’s about light government versus tough government, soft intervention versus hard intervention. Chlorinated chicken is a symbol of all that.”
Which brings us to Brexit. In June 2017 erstwhile international trade secretary Liam Fox flew to Washington, DC to talk about a future UK-US deal after Brexit. Already talk of lower food standards outside the EU were working their way into British headlines, and at a packed press conference a British journalist asked the minister if he had any concerns tucking into chlorine-washed chicken from the US. There was a pause.
The media was “obsessed” with the topic, Fox said, before admitting that that could form “a detail of the very end stage” of future negotiations. Instantly, a media obsession turned into a political meme. Throughout – and after – the Brexit saga, chlorinated chicken has transmogrified into some kind of political shorthand for everything from animal welfare and the environment, to Donald Trump and Brexit itself.
According to Morgan Schondelmeier, head of development at the UK-based neoliberal think tank Adam Smith Institute, Americans consider chlorination a non-issue. An American who has been living in London for the last three years, Schondelmeier says she has been eating this chicken “her whole life” and that “most Brits that have travelled to the US have eaten chicken without a second thought”.
“It’s not something actually discussed or even anything that registers in American debate,” she says. But for the British public it has become “a classic bogeyman that stokes fears over public health and the food supply.”
Schondelmeier thinks that the controversy plays into wider fears about negotiating with Trump’s America. “America under Trump is seen as a Wild West by Europeans, and they worry that a trade deal would open the UK up to some sort of undue American influence. It’s a gut reaction – if it’s happening in America under Trump’s administration it must be bad.”
As a matter of fact, the US farming lobby has pinned its hopes on Trump to push for the UK to accept poultry imports as part of any trade deal. The sector threw its weight firmly behind Trump in the 2016 presidential election, and will be asking him to return the favour.
Political contributions to Republicans from the poultry and egg farmers surged in the wake of the UK vote to leave the EU. In 2016 donations to the Republican campaign from the egg and poultry sector were $2.7m (up from $1.3m in 2012), compared to just $203,000 to Democrats (down from $230,000 in 2012.)
But chlorine-washing is bad, insists Stuart Roberts, the recently elected deputy president of the National Farmers Union and a Hertfordshire beef farmer. Now, as in the 1990s, “it is an indicator of those different standards” between the US and the UK. Different standards that include how many chickens can be kept in a space, the use of antibiotics, animal welfare and overall hygiene. “It all speaks to the heart of different production systems, because of different regulation and arguably because of different values and ethics when it comes to animal products.”
Of course, it is also about competition. US consumers pay an estimated 21 per cent less per kilogram of chicken than those in the UK. “If your competitors are able to produce in a way that is cheaper than yours, that is a threat. But equally, British society and British consumers have always valued things like animal welfare very highly and expect their food to be produced in a certain way.”
Whether or not the UK caves to American pressure on chlorinated chicken is a litmus test for whether the UK government will uphold the country’s values on food or otherwise, Roberts says. “This is the real test of our government. It is a test of their moral compass.”
With talks between the US and UK starting this month, the government will soon have to make a call. If they allow chlorinated chicken “it’ll lead to mass resistance” from the farming sector, insists Lang. At the annual NFU conference in February, president Minette Batters said it would be “insane” to allow US producers to use a process deemed illegal in the UK to give them a competitive edge over British farmers. “The food industry is incandescent at the prospect,” adds Lang. “These are calm, besuited, respectable people saying: ‘This is outrageous, we will not deal with this’. They’re seething.”
But the US is just as firm in its stance. Addressing UK business owners only months after Fox’s comments, Trump adviser Wilbur Ross lamented the “limited role of science” in EU Food policy. An agreement between the UK and US would be hindered were the UK to continue with adopting divergent standards and what the US see as protectionist measures. “Whether or not the UK lets consumers buy food products from America could be a make or break issue,” says Schondelmeier from the Adam Smith Institute.
Despite all the bluster, the issue of chlorinated chicken remains, economically, a small one. But the level of revulsion it creates will leave negotiators on both sides of the Atlantic spitting feathers.
All Rights Reserved for Megan Tatum