Trade talks between the United States and the United Kingdom have re-ignited a stormy debate about a food safety practice for poultry products, highlighting the continuing dispute about the intersection of science and good food policy. At what point should science give way to other goals and principles that govern our food supply?
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The United Kingdom says no to chlorinated chicken. But is their opposition based on science – or something else?
As I took my chicken breasts out of the package and put them in the baking dish, some of the chicken juice splashed into the sink. I dutifully scrubbed the sink and threw away the packaging, hoping no pathogens survived or dripped on the floor on the way to the garbage. I know I’m not the only one concerned about contamination in a food prep area. No one wants to get food poisoning.
To counter this concern, a small share of U.S. poultry processors use a mild sanitizing spray as the chicken pieces are getting washed which includes chlorine as part of their rigorous food safety procedures. Most scientists – as well as U.S. and even European food safety agencies — agree the practice poses no substantial health threat to people who consume the chicken.
But UK trade negotiators say ‘no’ to such a practice anyway, and use this reason to deny U.S. imports of lower-cost poultry into Great Britain. They argue such practices are inconsistent with the more stringent food standards they prefer. Better to focus on how poultry is grown, processed, and handled, they say. Focus on preventing a potential food safety problem more than on correcting it. to prevents E. Coli in cattle. U.S. trade officials say it’s just an excuse to close off an important export market for U.S. agriculture and to protect the UK industry.
As Mild as a Swimming Pool
On hearing some of the rhetoric in this debate, you would think U.S. chicken is coated in chlorine. That’s not the case.
We’ve all gone swimming in chlorinated pools. It gets on our skin, goes in our mouth, and even up our noses. We certainly don’t mind that much because we know it’s cleaning the pool and for our overall benefit. Chlorinated water for sprays or rinses in chicken processing – much like the water in swimming pools and in many municipal water supplies – is used in only about 5 percent of processing plants, according to the National Chicken Council. Most of the chlorine used by the industry goes into cleaning and sanitizing equipment, not on chickens.
The industry makes much greater use of antimicrobial products to kill or inhibit the growth of bacteria and pathogens like salmonella. Used repeatedly and sequentially across the processing chain, these agents help minimize contamination and create a safety-first philosophy of seemingly redundant levels of sanitization.
It’s an important part of providing consumers with a safe supply of poultry. If you eat undercooked chicken or other foods or beverages contaminated by raw chicken or its juices, you can get a foodborne illness, which is also called food poisoning.
To help consumers avoid microbes, chickens go through a ‘car wash’ where the industry routinely uses various FDA approved acidic washes in multiple stages of processing and chilling poultry, many with imposing and clinical names like paracetic acid (PAA), cetylpyridinium chloride (CPC), and acidified sodium chlorite (ASC).
Food safety experts, however, warn against a natural tendency to look at such imposing names as somehow dangerous substances. PAA, for example, is nothing more than an organic compound of vinegar and hydrogen peroxide, used by the poultry industry in concentrations that make it less acidic than lemon juice. CPC is an antiseptic commonly found in toothpaste, mouthwash, and nasal sprays. In addition, bromine and diverse organic acids are sometimes used. The industry simply does not rely on one ‘magic bullet’ antimicrobial agent – or some terrifying chemical cocktail out of a teenage sci-fi horror movie.
In most cases, the antimicrobials are used in very minute quantities – generally parts per million. The amount can be visualized as “an inch out of nearly 16 miles,” or as “one minute in almost two years.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and its Food Safety and Inspection Service, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), and the international Codex Alimentarius Commission all have found no serious threat from safe levels of chlorinated water or chlorine washes. Various university studies have drawn similar conclusions.
Reasons for UK and EU opposition
These approaches the U.S. uses to potentially reduce harmful food contamination seem to have worked well. But even with these science-based arguments behind the U.S. poultry industry, the European Union and the United Kingdom have banned imports of chlorinated poultry for almost 25 years. Politicians there dismiss the science – even from their food-safety related agencies and scientists. Their reasoning follows largely political lines.
The UK and the EU generally prefer to argue for a food safety system focused very strongly on avoidance of contamination, much more so than dealing with actual contamination. Food safety policy focuses on all aspects of how animals are raised, handled, processed, and delivered, even if that might make the production process less efficient than the U.S. model. Indeed, many opponents of chlorinated chicken are in fact fundamentally opposed to what they see as the “industrialized farming” of the United States.
The UK imports large volumes of poultry products – worth close to a half-billion dollars – each year, almost half from the Netherlands and much of the remainder from other EU-based nations. While UK poultry production continues to grow each year, demand has recently outstripped the industry’s ability to meet it. The importance of trade is clearly recognized in the UK, and apparently increasing – prompting hopes for progress in the continuing trade debate with the United States.
The argument against U.S. chicken imports reflects a desire to preserve and protect the rural nature of much of the UK and EU countryside, with maintenance of long-standing food-based segments of the economy.
Poultry is just one front in an on-going war to guard against the demise of a valued way of life.
Likewise, these opponents also often cite the humane aspects of their preferred approach as a strong reason for an adamant trade position. Critics sometimes allege the defense of science-based sanitary practices is in reality advocacy for “U.S.-style industrialized farming” practices that compromise not just a valued way of life but the safety of workers in these labor-intensive facilities as well.
Science or Protectionism?
Those favoring a more liberalized approach to poultry trade often call such arguments a “weak defense of outright trade protectionism” – the use of non-science-based reasoning to insulate a special interest from the global competition that drives higher productivity across the food system – greater savings for consumers, and better access to the food consumers want.
But with the UK facing an uncertain future with its largest historic trading partner – the European Union – there’s hope for some kind of breakthrough. One option talked about quietly behind the scenes would allow some imports of U.S. chicken, but with a hefty tariff attached. That would buy some time to gauge public reaction to the new food option – and its effect on the existing UK poultry industry – and the larger agricultural system.
The United States exported about $4.5 billion in poultry and eggs in 2017, and is the second-largest provider of broiler meat for the international market, with exports exceeding $4 billion annually. Growing global demand for animal protein, rising dietary and health concerns, and relatively rapid production cycles make the industry ripe for further growth – and additional economic opportunity for those capable of serving the demand.
U.S. producers want access to every possible market. And in one important respect, so should American poultry consumers. The economic vitality that exports help make possible for poultry producers help provide the money for further investment in producing more of the animal protein the world increasingly demands – and in making that process yield the safe, wholesome, and affordable product that makes food contamination a much lower risk for everyone.
What happens next? It’s up to us…
Our highly-regulated food system in the U.S. is designed to provide us with food we want, at a price we can afford, and to safely consume it without fear of contamination. But’s it’s our job at home to prepare our foods in a way that maintains those rigorous practices.
Nearly one in six Americans suffer from some form of food poisoning each year. And while most cases are generally mild, following a few sound safety steps can help make sure you and your family members don’t become victims. Want to read more on the safe handling of poultry? Read this.
The Bottom Line
The stakes in the dispute between the United States and the United Kingdom involve poultry producers and consumers in both countries. The convergence of economic interests and food safety remain highly important on both sides of the Atlantic.