whole chicken with yellow warning label with skull and word 'chlorine' on it on black background

What is chlorinated chicken?

Chlorinated chicken is in the headlines and could soon be on our plates. But what is it, and why are people concerned about eating it?

Chlorinated chicken is on everyone’s lips – metaphorically and maybe soon, quite literally. The UK may be pressured into accepting chlorinated chicken as part of a post-Brexit trade deal with the US, but campaigners argue heavily against letting it enter our food chain.

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So, what exactly is chlorinated chicken and why has it got everyone in a flap?

What is chlorinated chicken?

Simply put, it’s chicken that has been treated with chlorine. Once a chicken has been killed and prepared, it’s washed in water that contains chlorine or other chemicals; a process called Pathogen Reduction Treatment (PRT). This is to remove harmful bacteria such as salmonella, campylobacter and E.coli, which could make us very ill.

Is chlorinated chicken safe to eat?

Chlorine-washed chicken isn’t dangerous in the amounts we would consume – the European Food Safety Authority even says that exposure to chlorine residues on chicken would be of no safety concern. And we already eat chlorinated foods; bagged salads in Europe are often rinsed in chlorine, while it is routinely added to UK tap water.

So what’s the problem?

The issue isn’t the chlorine itself but what it might be disguising. The EU is concerned that chlorine washing could hide poor hygiene and animal welfare practices that occur earlier on in the production process. That’s why chlorinated chicken imports have been banned in the EU since 1997.

Instead of chlorine-washing, we follow a ‘farm to fork’ approach; high hygiene and animal welfare standards must be met throughout production to reduce the risk of harmful bacteria developing. This produces healthier animals, which means we don’t need to rinse our chicken in chlorine at the end of the process.

Chlorine-washing may not even be that effective. A 2018 study by the University of Southampton found chlorine can ‘make foodborne pathogens undetectable’; there are still enough bacteria to be harmful but their numbers are too low to be picked up by food safety tests.

Meanwhile, research carried out by the US non-profit organisation Consumer Reports discovered that 97 per cent of 300 American chicken breasts they tested contained salmonella, E.coli and campylobacter. Around half of those tested also contained one type of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This is particularly worrying as drug-resistant superbugs now lead to thousands of deaths a year.

Does this mean chlorinated chicken could make me ill?

It’s very tricky to compare rates of food poisoning in the US and the UK, as the data is collected differently, but some experts say you’re seven times more likely to get food poisoning in America than in the UK. Official figures also show that around 420 deaths a year in the US are linked to salmonella, while in the UK we had no reported deaths from salmonella from 2007 to 2016.

Sounds nasty. But isn’t chlorinated chicken banned in the EU?

Yes, it is. However, the UK leaves the EU on 31 December 2020 and campaigners fear that without the protection of EU legislation, the UK will have to accept chlorinated chicken as part of any trade deal with the US.

There are also worries that the US will flood the market with cheap chickens, putting pressure on our farmers to reduce their costs, in turn driving down hygiene and welfare standards.

Can I just stop eating American chickens then?

It won’t be that simple. Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, says food producers are currently not required to inform UK consumers whether or not chlorine was used in production. In other words, there may not be any words of warning on the label.

Restaurants and caterers don’t have to tell you where their meat comes from either, so you’ll have no way of checking if chlorinated chicken is in your favourite takeaway. ‘We simply won’t know we’re eating it,’ warns Sustain.

Is chlorinated chicken inevitable then?

Watch this space. The Agriculture Bill, which guarantees any future trade deals meet our welfare and manufacturing standards, has recently been through the parliamentary ping-pong process. The House of Commons rejected an amendment to the bill to ensure food imports comply with ‘relevant domestic standards’ but this decision was overturned by the House of Lords, sending the bill back to the Commons.

Then the government announced that chlorinated chicken – plus other US imports like hormone-injected beef – are ‘already banned in the UK, and we will not negotiate to remove that ban in a trade deal’. However, their U-turn falls short of a legal ban, so chlorinated chicken could still be imported.

The good news is that the Trade and Agriculture Commission has been given stronger powers to advise parliament on future trade deals. They will produce an independent report into the impact on UK animal welfare and agriculture of every post-Brexit trade deal, then recommend whether the government accepts or rejects it.

So while it’s not an outright ban, it should help keep chlorine in our swimming pools and well away from our dinner tables.

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