How Chickens Could Ruin President Trump's U.K. Trade Deal

July 26th 2017

Danielle DeCourcey

President Donald Trump is facing an unexpected obstacle in his effort to forge a new trade deal with the United Kingdom—chickens.

Apparently, American chicken doesn't make the grade overseas.

U.K. environment secretary Michael Gove said that the government should not accept chickens imported from the United States as a part of any deal. That's because chickens produced in the U.S. are washed in chlorine to prevent the spread of bacteria, but the European Union bans that practice due to environmental, animal welfare, and health concerns.

Although the U.K.'s exit from the European Union is already in motion through the process commonly known as "Brexit," the U.K. is still abiding by EU standards for food.

"I have made it perfectly clear we are not going to dilute our high environmental standards or our animal welfare standards in the pursuit of a trade deal," Gove told BBC radio. "We need to ensure that we do not compromise those standards. And we need to be in a position as we leave the European Union to be leaders in environmental and in animal welfare standards."

News of the trade debate drew strong reactions about chlorinated chicken from people in the United Kingdom.

What are the major concerns about chlorinated chicken?

In the U.S., chickens are washed in chlorinated water, a process that is approved by the FDA, with the argument that it stops the spread of bacteria from chickens' intestines to the meat, according to the BBC.

U.K. International Trade Secretary Liam Fox argued that science does not show any health concerns with chlorinated chickens themselves, but admitted there were environmental concerns that could be addressed later in the negotiations.

"There is no health issue with that—the European Union has said that it is perfectly safe," Fox told BBC Newsnight. "The issue lies around some of the secondary issues of animal welfare and it's perfectly reasonable for people to raise that, but it will come much further down the road."

Chlorinated chicken has been banned in the EU since 1997, because regulators argue it allows for sloppier standards earlier in the process, thereby increasing the risk of spreading salmonella and other illness causing bacteria. There are also concerns that meat processing plants could use the chlorine wash to make meat look fresher than it is in reality. In 2008, the Council of Europe rejected a proposal to allow chlorine washes due to fears it could "pose a risk to the aquatic environment" and could lead to the formation of cancer causing compounds.

    Environmental activist and author George Monbiot wrote for The Guardian that the chicken washing debate is symbolic of the overall lower food standards the U.S. could force on the U.K. in a trade deal.

    "Remarkably, however, chlorine-washed chicken could be the least offensive of the US meat regulations a trade deal might force us to adopt," he wrote. "It has been pushed to the fore because it is less politically toxic than the issues hiding behind it."

    How worried should you be about eating chlorinated chicken?

    It's not completely clear. In the wake of this chicken trade debate, The Independent's Ben Chapman published a round up of relevant research about chicken diseases and bacteria in North America and Europe.

    A 2013 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of foodborne illness from 1999 to 2008 found that 22 percent of illnesses came from meat and "more deaths were attributed to poultry than to any other commodity," Chapman reported.

    Chapman also cited a 2015 study by the World Health Organization, which found that rates of campylobacter bacterial infections were similar in the EU and North America but two types of salmonella were at least four times higher in North America.

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