During President Trump’s recent visit to Europe, he expressed his desire to start working towards a post-Brexit trade deal with the U.K. While the reality of Britain’s continued entanglement with the European Union makes these plans seem far off in the future, this is not the first time the president has shown his eagerness to deepen the so-called Special Relationship. “I think everything with a trade deal is on the table,” he said after meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May on June 5. But it may surprise Trump, and many Americans, to find out that a stalled Brexit may not be the only thing holding back a U.K.-U.S. trade deal.
On the very same day as the president’s meeting with May, Liberty Nation was on the ground in London, covering the anti-Trump demonstrations. One group, in particular, caught the eye of U.S. LN staff members, who were nonplussed to see protesters dressed up as “chlorinated chickens.” So, what exactly is the deal with chlorinated chicken, and what does it mean for trade between the U.S. and the U.K.?
Toxic Trade Deal?
“Trump’s divisive politics of hate is not welcome in the UK. Nor is his toxic trade deal,” was the bold declaration on a flyer handed out to protesters by the chicken-costumed activists, on behalf of the group Global Justice Now. Jackie, the protestor who gave us the flyer, said: “The reason I’m dressed as a chlorinated chicken … we don’t want to have the sort of chlorinated chicken that they have in their shops in America. At the moment we’ve got higher food safety standards, therefore we have higher animal husbandry, higher conditions in the slaughterhouses, and so chlorinated chicken is really a short-hand for food safety standards.”
To put it bluntly, U.S. food standards do not have a good reputation in Europe – many food additives, agricultural chemicals, liberal hormone and antibiotic use, and genetically modified organisms common in the U.S. diet are banned across the Atlantic. The U.K. has its own Food Standards Agency, but in reality, most decisions are currently made by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) – and some are concerned that a post-Brexit Britain would be pressured to relax its standards to strike a trade deal with the U.S.
Chlorine-washing is a method of sterilizing edibles before packaging to minimize bacteria that may cause food poisoning, such as Salmonella and Campylobacter. In 1997, EFSA banned any substance other than water for post-slaughter poultry washing, while in the U.S., the use of chemicals chlorine dioxide, acidified sodium chlorate, trisodium phosphate, and peroxyacids as “pathogen reduction treatments” has continued to be common practice.
While chlorine is widely used to sanitize fruit and vegetables in Europe, and EFSA says that “exposure to chlorite residues arising from treated poultry carcasses would be of no safety concern,” the practice is banned due to the belief that chlorine-washing meat is a way to compensate for poor hygiene that may occur during intensive, over-crowded animal-rearing and slaughter. Current E.U. policy emphasizes a “farm to fork” approach, which seeks to ensure high standards throughout the agricultural chain, rather than addressing these issues at the end of the process.
The E.U. policy resulted in a steep decline in U.S. poultry exports to Europe, much to the frustration of the U.S. government and agricultural industry. The matter has become a long-time dispute between the two blocs, and in 2009, the outgoing Bush administration tried to take the issue to the World Trade Organization. Little came of it.
In March, U.S. Ambassador to the U.K. Woody Johnson expressed frustration over the British concerns. “You have been presented with a false choice,” he wrote in The Telegraph. “Either stick to EU directives, or find yourselves flooded with American food of the lowest quality. Inflammatory and misleading terms like ‘chlorinated chicken’ and ‘hormone beef’ are deployed to cast American farming in the worst possible light. It is time the myths are called out for what they really are. A smear campaign from people with their own protectionist agenda.”
Actions Speak Louder than Words
In 2018, the Institute for Public Policy Research found that 82% of Brits would prefer to stick to E.U. food standards after Brexit, and only 8% would be willing to change them to strike a trade deal. A December YouGov survey for the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) also found that more than half of respondents said they would eat less meat if a trade deal brought chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef to U.K. supermarkets. Of those surveyed, 81% would be more concerned about quality, while 83% said they would pay more attention to labeling. Only 21% said they would not change the amount of poultry they buy, and 29% said they would eat as much beef.
Despite these results, other AHDB research indicates that price, taste, and convenience are more important to British consumers than animal welfare. Activists may be vocal when it comes to U.S. agricultural standards, but many are silent when it comes to the U.K.’s problems. Intensive, battery chicken farming is still widely practice within the U.K. industry, though it is still more regulated for the sake of animal welfare and disease prevention than its U.S. counterpart.
According to Chicken Out!, a campaign by celebrity chef and small-scale farmer Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, 90% of U.K. chickens are intensively farmed. The campaign was launched in 2007, yet twelve years later, it appears consumers are still reluctant to change. “These chickens are farmed in barren and crowded sheds with no outdoor access, no natural daylight and little room to move freely. These birds have been selectively bred to reach slaughter weight in around six weeks, these unnaturally fast growth rates result in millions of chickens suffering from painful leg disorders, breathing disabilities, ammonia burns and dying of lung or heart failure,” says the campaign’s webpage.
The common-sense approach would seemingly be to allow consumers to choose – clear labeling would empower every individual to make an informed decision about their food purchases. David Swales, AHDB Head of Strategic Insight, however, says that confusion over labeling and financial pressure may simply be too great. “[O]ur research shows there is a distinct gap between what consumers say is important to them and what influences their purchase at the fixture … Also there’s the added complication that if we did import these products, domestically-produced meat would likely be at a disadvantage on price. As a key driver of shopper behaviour, there may be calls for these practices to be introduced in the UK to allow farmers to compete on a level playing field.”
With poultry being one of the most consumed meat products across the globe, it is not surprising that the industry is seeking to maximize profits – industrial farming leads to cheaper products and potentially more customers. Whether the British public will continue to object to intensively-raised U.S. hens or find the likely discounted prices too tempting to resist is a moot point with Brexit still on the rocks – but in a world where everything is a commodity, the individual consumer has the power to vote with his or her wallet.
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