Chlorine Washed Chicken – A No Brainer?

Chlorine washed chicken is back on the agenda.  The US are seeking to make it a component of any future trade deal with the UK post-Brexit.  The US ambassador Woody Johnson calls it a “public safety no-brainer”.

But should we care?  Is there any problem with washing chicken in a chlorinated solution?

Washing food in chlorine solutions is not harmful to human health.  And it does appear to kill pathogens.  So on a basic level there is no obvious reason to object to it.  We shouldn’t be blinded by science or nasty sounding chemicals.  The Americans argue the EU ban on chlorine washed chickens is just protectionism.  They may have a point. After all Europe has a history of protecting its farmers.

But that is far from the whole story.  The US have a system of animal husbandry which is incredibly intense, has no rules on intensity of stocking (although guidelines do exist) or the level of stocking during transportation  and overall demonstrates less care for the welfare of animals and is focused on making money at the animals expense.

In the EU we have some regulations designed to protect farm animals on farm, during transport and at slaughter.  Our laws recognise animals as sentient beings and to pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals.  These laws are translated into rules which dictate the maximum density that chickens can be held in – the rules equate to 19 chickens of £2kg weight.  Nineteen!  I have been around a few battery farms in the UK.  They aren’t pleasant.  They smell pretty awful.  The birds look small and colourless.  The last thought that crossed my mind as I went around the battery farm was “If only we could put more birds into this small space, we could have better outcomes”.  In the EU there is a ban on use of anti-biotic growth promoters and from 2022 the EU will have banned use of any antimicrobials which are used for humans and require veterinary approval for use of any antimicrobial.  My point is that EU regulations are hardly stringent but are ahead of the US.

In the EU there are also clear rules on what can be labelled free range.  The intensity of birds is lower.  Down to 13 birds per square meter.  And they have to have access during at least half their lives to open air runs.  Free range is not a concept that is defined and regulated in the US poultry industry and is not a widely understood consumer definition.  If you buy a chicken or an egg you should assume it has been intensively farmed as for most people no other options exist.

So back to chlorine washed chickens.  One reason chickens are washed in chlorine in the US is that there is no restriction on the intensity of farming, so animals are more likely to become sick and therefore extra steps are needed in the supply chain to make sure the food is safe. Those steps could include use of anti-biotics  or extra cleaning processes to remove pathogens – Chlorine washes.  It is not chlorine washed chickens that should be banned.  It is imports from a system of farming which competes aggressively at the animals’ expense. And in the case of anti-biotics use – at the consumers expense as resistance to anti-biotics becomes a major health risk.  Chlorine washing is a handy route and an emotional one for attacking the whole system.

Does the US system of intensive animal husbandry followed by chlorine washing lead to better health outcomes?  It is difficult to say.  UK and US chickens are both frequently contaminated with campylobacter. The death rate from salmonella in the US is much higher than in the UK but that might have nothing to do with chlorine washes.  In recent work we undertook in the US meat packaging sector we saw widespread use of archaic packaging – polystyrene foam trays covered in cling film.  Not only does that packaging system provide poor barriers to contamination, it also lends itself to in-store re-labelling to add extra shelf life to products – a practice that we believe is widespread in the US and could also lead to higher rates of infection.

Do chickens grown in better conditions taste better?  I think so, but ultimately that is a matter of personal preference.  I prefer the taste that comes from an older bird which has typically been grown organically or free range.  But as a nation, or perhaps as a group of nations within the EU we have decided that no matter what taste preference is, there is a limit to how cruelly we can keep animals for our benefit.  I sign up to that concept.  The idea of a market which competes on how intensively and cruelly it can farm animals is not for me and is not demonstrative of a well-functioning market.

So when the US calls for us to allow in chlorine washed birds, let’s be clear what they are asking for.  They are asking us to tear up our rule book on a basic level of consideration for animal welfare and to compete by farming as intensively as possible.  They are asking us to not care about taste and perhaps not food safety either. And they are asking us to turn a blind eye to use of anti-biotics in our meat.

But when our farming industry tries to block imports of chlorine washed chicken, it isn’t the process of chlorine washing that is the cause for objection.  It is competition with a less regulated industry – EU regulation which provides a moderately higher level of animal welfare and consumer welfare.