What do fears about chlorinated chicken say about food safety in the UK?
Should Britain allow chlorinated chicken imports from the US as part of a wider trade deal? The issue has become emblematic of the hugely complex task of forging new free trade agreements.
For the US, the issue is “a ruse” to protect specific industries from fair competition. But campaigners are adamant that chlorinated chicken poses a health risk.
The EU banned chlorinated chicken in 1997, taking the view that the practice could be used to compensate for poor safety standards earlier in the meat husbandry process, which may result in increased risk of harmful bacteria. (Concerns are not associated with human consumption of chlorine – the EU and therefore UK rules allow for many other foodstuffs to be washed in chlorine, such as salads.)
In 2008, the US made an unresolved complaint to the WTO that the move was not based on scientific evidence.
The question seems quite simple: does washing chicken in chlorine pose a food safety risk?
One study of campylobacter in the UK found about 450 cases per 100,000 people, while a similar US study found there were about 300 cases for 100,000 people. Other studies, widely covered in the UK media, have suggested food poisoning rates are up to 10 times higher in the US than in the UK. However, the UK’s Food Standards Agency has warned that estimates between the UK and the US are not comparable and are not based on like-for-like studies.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation has estimated that North America has a higher rate of salmonella cases but a lower rate of campylobacter cases than the EU. Campylobacter bacteria is the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK, usually from undercooked meat.
The answer seems to be that there are no clear statistics either way, and despite the hysteria, the best estimates show only marginal differences in food safety between the UK, Europe and the US.
It might be an idea to include a commitment to establish more comparable international data on such important matters as food safety, as part of any future trade deal.