'Chlorinated Chicken' Debate Ruffles Feathers on Both Sides of the Atlantic

CC BY 2.0. USDA -- A poultry farm in the United States

If the US and the UK come to a trade agreement, it could mean lowering UK agricultural standards to accept American poultry. This is troublesome for many reasons.

The United Kingdom’s trade secretary Liam Fox is in Washington right now, drafting what could become a formal trade agreement after March 2019, once the UK has formally exited the European Union. The talks have not gone smoothly, as many people in the UK, as well as EU representatives in Brussels, are irate over the idea that British agricultural standards would likely have to be lowered to American levels to facilitate trade.

The most popular example is that of chlorine-washed chicken. Under current EU regulations, washing chicken carcasses with chlorine is not allowed, whereas, in the United States, it’s common practice. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with ingesting chlorine in small amounts – we do it already in our drinking water – it’s the reason for the practice that’s troublesome. George Monbiot writes:

“Washing chicken carcasses with chlorine allows farmers and processors to save the money they might have spent on systemic sanitation throughout the chicken’s life and death. You need only dunk the meat in a chlorine bath to kill any accumulated germs.”

Only, it doesn’t work nearly as well as the US wants to believe. Monbiot cites a World Health Organization study that shows bacterial infections are four to five times higher in the U.S. than in Europe. Meanwhile, Fox has complained that the media is overly “obsessed” with chlorinated chicken and that “Americans have been eating it perfectly safely for years.”

If chlorine seems nasty, Monbiot points out that it’s the “least offensive” of the US meat regulations that a trade agreement might force onto Britain. Consider the powerful antibiotics, deemed crucial to human health, that are fed in low doses to chickens to fatten them up; it’s a perfect breeding ground for a superbug and, according to journalists like Maryn McKenna, a key factor for ushering in the post-antibiotic era as rapidly as possible. Then there are the antihistamines added to make meat more tender, and the beef hormones linked to breast cancer.

It all comes down to a fundamental difference:

“The European Union rules, which currently prevail in the UK, take a precautionary approach to food regulation, permitting only products and processes proved to be safe. In contrast, the US government uses a providential approach, permitting anything not yet proved to be dangerous.”

This is not something any country should welcome or allow, competitive low prices notwithstanding. As EU reps have alluded to, should the UK lower itself to American poultry standards, it would seriously impede trade with other European nations, not to mention the blow to British poultry farmers, whose costs to maintain healthy birds are much higher than the chlorine-solves-all approach.

There comes a point when countries need to ask themselves, how much trade is too much trade? If the purpose of trade is to bring prosperity, and a nation already has plenty of that, and furthering trade agreements could actually undermine that prosperity, while threatening the safety and health of its inhabitants, then what’s the point?