Chlorinated chicken is one of the most enduring food fights in international trade. Now it is frustrating U.S.-UK trade talks. Chlorinated chicken is political theater that lacks any science. With its newfound regulatory independence post-Brexit, the UK should open up to labelled U.S. poultry.
The backstory, in brief, is that U.S. poultry is rinsed in chlorine, given fears of salmonella and campylobacter, while European poultry can only be rinsed in potable water. The European Union (EU) does not disagree that a chlorine rinse does the trick. Rather, as British media like to tell it, the worry is that a chlorine rinse can mask bad hygiene practices taking place before the poultry is slaughtered. It isn’t true, and European audits have conceded the point for decades.
The 2004 EU regulation at the heart of this dispute actually identifies six risks: to protect sewage workers, sewage systems, aquatic life; minimize antimicrobial resistances and chemical residue; and masking. The EU targets four chemicals, not just chlorine, and has eight studies on which it relies for making sense of all of this. You’d think these studies would be full of scientific evidence bearing out Europe’s 2004 regulation, but you’d be wrong.
As remarkable as it may seem, Europe lacks science to back up any of their claims about masking, or almost anything else. There are six risks, four chemicals, eight studies, and nothing to show for it. There may be a hint of one concern for one chemical for a single risk, but not for chlorine, and not for masking.
Back in 2003, one prominent EU study concluded that a chlorine rinse “is not intended to mask poor hygiene.” Another praised “the high hygienic standards in the US” and noted that without the chlorine rinse, the EU would “most likely” resume imports. Compare that to Brazil and Thailand, both of which export poultry to Europe. The EU found that neither lived up to an important food safety management system called Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point, known as HACCP. In contrast, U.S. poultry plants were found to have a “thorough HACCP plan in place…”
It gets worse. Europe found that Brazil didn’t have veterinarians to inspect their poultry after slaughter, and that Thailand relied on “negative tests for Salmonella….” In the case of the U.S., the EU found that “[t]he cleanliness of carcasses … indicated a high level of hygiene….” Put another way, there’s no masking.
The plot thickens when you look inside Europe. First, there are a lot of things in the EU that are rinsed in chlorine, such as fruits, vegetables and drinking water. Fruits and vegetables are especially interesting in this regard. In Italy, France and Sweden, for example, adult exposure to chlorine is eight times greater from fruits and vegetables than from meat, but aren’t regulated like poultry. The same is true of drinking water, which has a much bigger impact on vulnerable populations, such as children and the elderly, than poultry.
More comical still, “local” farmers are exempt from the 2004 EU regulation that bans chlorine. What is a local farmer? That’s a good question. In the UK, a local farmer is one who sells within a 50km radius, but in Italy, it’s one who sells within a 100km radius. This difference looks arbitrary. But here’s the punchline: The entirety of the UK is “local” at both Christmas and Easter to handle the expected increase in demand for poultry at these holidays. You can’t make this stuff up.
How will this trade dispute get resolved? Assuming the political narrative can be reined in, the answer has to come in the form of a label. The wording will be key, and must convey to consumers that U.S. poultry, like the fruits, vegetables and drinking water in the UK, is far safer when it is “decontaminated” by chlorine.
The UK should implement a label for two reasons. First, the UK will have to upgrade how it justified science-based trade measures, both for the sake of a U.S.-UK trade agreement as well as for its trade more generally. Second, a label has to be easier than telling UK citizens that they have been peddled a story about chlorinated chicken that Brussels has long known isn’t true.
Marc L. Busch is the Karl F. Landegger Professor of International Business Diplomacy at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and host of the podcast TradeCraft.