Love it or hate it, Brexit is coming. As the negotiations are poised to begin, it is all too evident that some of the restrictions imposed by the EU will no longer apply to the UK once we split from Europe.
You’d have to have spent the last week under a blanket to have missed the latest development: that of chlorinated US chicken reaching our shores.
The EU banned chlorine-washed chicken based on health grounds, so it’s unlikely you’ve ever eaten it. However, international trade secretary Liam Fox has recently suggested this ban could be lifted following Brexit, as a step towards securing a quick trade agreement with the US, where chlorine-washed chicken is legal.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove insisted, however, that chlorine-washed chicken imports would not be allowed and that the issue was in fact a “red line” in talks with Washington.
Why is chlorinated chicken a bad thing?
Advocates of washing or dipping chicken carcasses in strongly chlorinated water say it reduces the risk of contamination by killing bacteria such as salmonella and e-coli on the surface of the bird.
EU safety regulators, however, believe that the process can foster carelessness by food handlers.
Farmers who do not rely on a chemical bath to kill harmful pathogens, must employ higher standards of hygiene and animal welfare through systematic sanitation, since they must take greater care at each stage of the process. This could all change if the ban is lifted.
The health implications on eating chlorinated chicken are fuzzy, but studies suggest that the chloro-organic compounds left as residues in the chicken can cause cancer, are hard to get rid of and have a tendency to build up over time when repeatedly absorbed by living organisms. In addition, there is evidence that the chlorine bath doesn’t even work: In 2014, an investigation by the independent US non-profit organisation, Consumer Reports, found that 97 per cent of 300 chicken breasts it tested from across America contained harmful bacteria including Salmonella, campylobacter and E.Coli.
An investigation by Reuters discovered that chicken companies in the US use a wide array of antibiotics as routine feed supplements to prevent disease and promote growth. One of these belongs to a class of antibiotics listed as “critically important” in human medicine. These antibiotics are administered to chickens in low doses, creating ideal conditions for the emergence of new, antibiotic-resistant super-bugs.
Chlorine-washed chickens highlight wider concerns around animal welfare and environmental standards that could become a critical negotiating point in a post-Brexit trade deal between the US and the UK.
Other practices, like implanting cattle with man-made growth hormones and selling unlabelled genetically modified foods, are also allowed in the US but banned in the UK.
Why would the UK import US meat?
Because of its reliance on chemical baths and the less-stringent rearing process this entails, producing meat in the US is cheaper. Chlorinated chicken could drive down the cost of chicken meat in the UK, should a trade deal be agreed. On the face of it, this seems like a good thing – we all want a lower grocery bill – but it also means that UK farmers, already struggling, would be put under financial pressure.
This latest Brexit sticking point highlights how important it is to support local UK farmers, who take great care to ensure their animals are healthy and live stress-free and comfortable lives. Buying local produce ensures provenance – you can’t ask your supermarket cashier where your chicken came from or how it was raised. You can only get this provenance from places like farmer’s markets and farm shops. Buying your groceries from such places makes sure good, traditional and healthy farming practices endure, whatever the politicians decide.
You can get your very unchlorinated free-range chicken from Beechridge Farm each Thursday in the High Street at Taunton Farmers Market.