"There's no food safety issue with chlorine-washed goods because the EU themselves say that's perfectly safe,"
Liam Fox, 26 July 2017
Research from the European Food Safety Authority—an EU agency—has found “no safety concerns” with treating slaughtered chicken with chlorine. That said, it and other bodies have also said this practice might not be sufficient for maintaining good hygiene standards throughout the slaughter process.
The EU continues to ban imports of chlorine-washed chicken from the US. After Brexit, there’s a debate over whether the UK should relax this on poultry imports from the US.
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Chlorine and chicken: why the sudden fuss?
The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, is in the US for talks about possible future trading relationships between the US and the UK in the wake of Brexit.
The poultry trade is one of the issues that the US and UK will need to resolve in a future deal. It’s controversial because, at the moment, the EU bans the import of poultry which has been rinsed with chlorine—something that’s very common in the US but doesn’t happen here.
That means the UK, as an EU member, currently imports a paltry amount from the US. After Brexit, we may be able to drop this restriction if we wanted to, and some experts believe it’s likely to be a high priority for the US in negotiations. The Cabinet is reportedly split on the issue.
What’s the debate?
It’s standard practice in the US to rinse chicken carcasses with chlorine and other products to disinfect them after they’ve been slaughtered. This is what’s called ‘pathogen reduction treatment’.
Supporters of this argue it’s a healthy way of ensuring meat is free of harmful bacteria.
Bar some exceptions, the EU bans the use of anything other than water to wash these products, so this restricts heavily imports of US chicken to the UK and other EU countries.
The EU takes a different approach which it calls the ‘farm to fork’ principle. It says that’s based on ensuring hygiene across all stages of the production chain, rather than particular disinfection at the end of the process.
There’s now a debate over whether the UK—outside of the EU—should drop this ban, but the EU’s position seems steadfast. The EU’s Agriculture Commissioner, Phil Hogan, said in March that:
“We would never accept a lowering of our standards in the EU, and we have been consistently effective in protecting standards in all our global trade agreements.”
We’re not covering in this piece what actually constitutes a higher or lower standard of hygiene.
Does the EU say it’s safe to eat chlorinated chicken?
We spoke to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)—an EU agency—and the British Poultry Council (BPC). Neither said it was unsafe to eat chicken rinsed with chlorine, but both raised different concerns about the process.
The BPC said it was concerned about the impact on British farmers and standards if chlorine-washed chicken from the US started to be imported.
The EFSA says it stands by its findings from 2005 research that concluded:
“On the basis of available data and taking into account that processing of poultry carcasses (washing, cooking) would take place before consumption, the Panel considers that treatment with trisodium phosphate, acidified sodium chlorite, chlorine dioxide, or peroxyacid solutions, under the described conditions of use, would be of no safety concern.”
Similarly, a panel in 2012 said the use of chemical substances in poultry is “unlikely to pose an immediate or acute health risk for consumers”.
The EFSA has also stressed that “the use of antimicrobial solutions does not replace the need for good hygienic practices during processing of poultry carcasses, particularly during handling…”. It also cautioned that it hadn’t looked at data on the by-products of chlorine use, aside from the chickens themselves.
This is part of the reasoning behind the EU’s ban. Back in the late 1990s, when the ban was introduced, scientific advisors to the EU expressed concern that:
"the use of decontamination techniques during food processing would have an adverse effect on the efforts being made both at the primary production level and during the initial processing stages. In particular … removing incentives for farmers to continue developing good sanitation in their flocks, and in neglecting the use of good manufacturing practice (GMP) in the whole production line".
This was backed up by another panel from a few years ago, which said that maintaining standards earlier in the slaughter process was likely to be better for public health “as the bacteria may also spread from farms to humans by other pathways”.