Strategic Advisor Geoffrey Podger, he shares his latest thoughts on Chlorinated Chicken.
For someone as fond of stirring up controversy as President Trump, his recent State Visit to the UK judged in these terms must surely be ranked as an unparalleled success. We were treated to the President’s views on, amongst other issues, the Mayor of London, involving the Chinese in our future telecommunications, how to take Brexit forward and the potential choices for the next British Prime Minister. In the specific context of Brexit there was again the offer of a US-British free trade deal and the question of whether the UK is prepared in that context to allow the import of chlorinated chicken. As this question is perhaps one more governed by emotion than reason, it may be timely to look again at precisely why this option has generated so much hostility.
What exactly is chlorinated chicken?
Chlorinated chicken is a process used in the USA whereby following slaughter and plucking, poultry is sprayed in a chlorine wash to remove or at least reduce the bacteria which are present and pose a potential food safety hazard. The import of chlorinated chicken is currently banned by the EU on food safety grounds – although the UK could reverse this ban once it is no longer subject to EU regulation. In fact, the safety of chlorinated chicken has been studied by the EU and noticeably by the European Food Safety Authority, however, there is no view that it does constitute a risk to health. Chlorine like many chemicals does pose risks, but only at levels markedly higher than normal daily consumption. Conversely chlorination, noticeably of our water supply, is a key protective measure in protecting public health. So, from a safety perspective the issue is pretty clear, the process does not constitute a food safety risk. The issue of whether the process constitutes a food safety benefit however is rather more contested. Recent studies at Cardiff Metropolitan University have suggested that the US chicken chlorination process may not eliminate bacteria completely. This goes to the core of the food safety argument that the real defence against food poisoning from either meat or poultry lies in proper storage conditions, proper cooking in terms of time and temperature and absolute separation of the cooked from the uncooked product in order to prevent cross contamination.
Reducing levels of bacteria on carcasses may be helpful, but presents a risk if it gives consumers the idea that the precautions just outlined above no longer need to be taken. Finally, we might hope that the contrast in safety efficacy between the US process and our own might be evidenced by a comparison of food poisoning rates. No such luck – the recording of food poisoning is notoriously deficient in all countries and to make the situation even more difficult, the methodologies used differ as well.
The great chlorinated chicken debate
The more valid objection to chlorinated chicken lies in the objection that the US spray process is really intended to hide the effects of poor animal welfare and overcrowded living conditions, resulting in high levels of chicken infection, there has certainly been evidence uncovered in some US poultry houses to suggest as such. However, we should be careful not to take the view that because bad conditions are found in some cases, they are therefore to be found across the whole of the country in question. Equally we should recognise that whilst we rightly pride ourselves on our animal welfare standards, it does not follow that they are universally respected in practice and in particular the absence of chlorination is not a guarantee that high welfare standards are being observed.
Lurking in the background to this debate is the suspicion that what we are really dealing with may be less about fears over food safety and animal welfare and rather more about a good old-fashioned protectionist trade dispute. After all, if you are a domestic chicken producer would you welcome a rival to your product coming on the market which is only 80% of the cost? It is however open to question whether a protectionist approach serves the long-term interests of producers as much as of consumers. A likely consequence of Brexit will be the need to trade more in the freer global markets outside the EU, which for British agriculture would seem to mean trading on quality rather than quantity of production – given that we simply can’t compete with the US on the latter for reasons of scale.
The UK domestically has already created successful markets in animal welfare rated products as for example “free range eggs” where consumers including myself are happy to pay more for more humane production methods. Much the same could be tried if US chlorinated chicken were to allowed for import into the UK. However, this would crucially depend on the provision of clear labelling to determine consumer choice and in this respect past US attitudes have not been promising, for example their claim that GM foods should not be labelled as such because labelling is only suitable if there are safety issues. Trading more freely for on the world market is not going to work for UK consumers unless they have clearly labelled choices, the truth of which can be backed up by evidence. Chlorinated chicken is just one part of this wider question but the issue is not a food safety one.
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