In an already contentious year, a new trade deal between the United States and the United Kingdom has come to a head over just one issue: chlorinated chicken.
What is chlorinated chicken? A unique farming practice in the US, chlorinated chicken is created by farmers employing the use of “Pathogen Reduction Treatment (PRT),” or, washing chickens with chlorine and other disinfectants to remove possible bacteria from potential infection during rearing and slaughter.
Banned in the EU in 1997, chlorine washing has been the subject of tense debate for decades, even resulting in proceedings before the World Trade Organisation (WTO). On the US side, the USDA — United States Department of Agriculture — has repeatedly approved chlorine washing, determining that meat treated with such chemicals is safe for consumption, with the US National Chicken Council estimating that only 10% of US processing plants use chlorine washes in the first place.
The UK side is much trickier. While the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that chemical substances in poultry are unlikely to pose an immediate health risk, and a report from the UK think tank, the Adam Smith Institute, indicated that “[chlorine washing] reduces prevalence of salmonella from 14%…to 2%,” there remains strong opposition.
Science vs. Morals
EU regulators are primarily concerned that chlorine washing may, in fact, only compensate for poor US farming conditions, and that consumers are safer and better protected by outlawing chemical treatment outright. To this end, EU poultry processors are only allowed to use cold air and water for decontamination.
The US disputes these stances on grounds of minimal scientific evidence, categorizing them as “wilful protectionism” designed to shelter the EU from more competitive imports. Conversely, UK reporting indicates that washes lead to higher rates of food poisoning and mortality in the US than in the UK.
Naturally, this standoff has caused major problems for a potential UK-US trade deal.
Deal or No Deal?
Deal prospects continue to look dire, as negotiations continue to unravel and transformations are made to the British farming industry.
With both sides as a standoff, the UK’s Trade and Agriculture Commission Chairman, Tim Smith, has unilaterally stated that a compromise on the chlorinated chicken is off the table, and President-Elect Biden has already laid out plans for more emphasis on growing domestic products.
EU economists had been wary of a potential deal, with estimated growth models showing that the British economy may only grow 0.16% larger by the middle of the next decade, with an even more limited trade deal potentially delivering just 0.07% growth by the middle of the 2030s.
The Agriculture Bill
Providing a heretofore unparalleled boost to the UK farming industry, the Agriculture Bill gives farmers a seven-year transition period to adapt to a new agricultural system aimed at rewarding them with public money for public goods, i.e. better air, water, and soil quality, as well as prospering wildlife.
Most notable for the possibility of the UK-US trade deal, the UK government will be improving the transparency and fairness in the supply chain from farm to table, ensuring that domestic food producers remain competitive and innovative by investing in the latest technologies.
Playing Chicken over Chicken
With the UK preparing for the end of the Brexit transition, and the US has its most contentious transfer of power in the country’s history, it could likely be years before any sort of agreement is met, least of which one allowing chlorinated chicken on UK soil.
While the British government stresses the potential advantages of a deal, noting that removing American trade barriers could deliver major increases in the exports of salmon, cheddar cheese, and cars, any deal without strict environmental and farming protections is sure to meet opposition. Namely, under the new Agriculture Bill, the Trade and Agriculture Commission will be made a statutory body that gives independent advice on trade deals as they go through Parliament, producing independent reporting on animal welfare and agricultural impacts.