The Real Cost of Cheap US Chicken? Chlorination is Just the Start

September 10, 2019

As sugar was to the 18th and 19th centuries, so chicken is to the 20th and 21st centuries. It has been turned into one of the defining commodities of our era. A luxury until it underwent its industrial revolution from the 1960s on, it is now ubiquitous. Today, questions about how poultry is produced, by and for whom, and to whose profit, take you to the heart of the global trade system. So there is no escape from the debate about chlorinated US chicken.

Politicians, perhaps bemused at having to repeatedly discuss something so mundane and dirty as contamination by chicken excrement, try to downplay concerns. President Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, treated the issue as a joke recently when he visited the newly installed Boris Johnson to offer solidarity in the form of a quick and easy US-UK trade deal. Others have elevated the chicken argument with a flourish of Latin, as Daniel Hannan did when he gave a speech in praise of Gallus gallus domesticus and the huge contribution its industrialised progeny have made by providing cheap protein to the world’s poor.

Serious minds are engaged on the matter for good reason. For the US, one of the chief prizes of Brexit is the chance to open up a major European economy to its agribusiness, after years of failed trade talks in which the EU has refused to accept its food and farming standards. For British Brexiters, the reward will be cheaper goods for consumers on low incomes. Both parties see the EU regulations on these standards, such as its ban on imports of poultry washed with chlorine, as unnecessary and at root protectionist.

Chlorinated chicken has become totemic because it encapsulates a much wider argument over what sort of agriculture the world needs and how far we should regulate it.

We chlorinate our water, so what’s the problem with using chlorine washes to make chicken safe? Why all the fuss, asked Zippy Duvall, the head of the US farmers’ lobby group, on the BBC’s Today programme last month. The fact that we disinfect water with chlorine will not do as an argument here, despite Duvall’s hopes. We disinfect our lavatories with it, too. The issue of safety depends on concentration.

The World Health Organization recommends water supplies are treated with a maximum of 5mg of chlorine per litre. The US allows poultry carcasses to be washed in water treated with up to 50mg of chlorine per litre. The EU allows salad leaves to be treated with chlorine washes, and in the UK they have typically been used at concentrations of up to 15-20mg per litre, although industry has been moving away from using them in response to consumer concerns.

The WHO recommends limits on levels because disinfecting with chlorine leaves behind harmful residues of chlorinated compounds, some of which are known from animal tests to be cancer-causing. Residues in water supplies have been studied, and the benefits far outweigh the risks. However, there has been very little proper study of the residues left by the use of chlorine in food processing.

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