The chlorine or the chicken – which came first?

chlorine chicken

“Are you ready to order, sir?”

“Yes, I will take the chicken à la chlorine, followed by the hormone-injected steak. And I’ll have a side portion of the mash with added petro-chemical please.”

As the old gag might be recycled, “Which came first – the chicken or the sodium hypochlorite?”  Actually, that’s not funny, but if UK Trade Secretary Liam Fox has his way, it will become a reality following Brexit. According to Fox, such worries are down to the British media fixating on minor details instead of concentrating on the bigger picture of securing a free-trade deal with, in this instance, the United States.

A ‘deal’ which would see the lifting of the current (EU) ban on importing food products routinely treated with chemicals, usually at the expense of hygiene and animal welfare standards, standards which the EU currently rejects but the US food industry seems happy to permit.

In America, for instance, poultry farmers routinely wash chickens in chlorinated water to remove germs and other impurities from the intestinal tract of the carcass; petroleum-derived food additives (Butylated Hydroxyanisole – BHA – for example) are inserted in food items such as mashed potato and ice cream in the US to provide a longer shelf-life; while cattle are typically administered growth hormones and/or antibiotics to increase meat mass and prevent infection from lowering the yield.


These practices are either banned in the EU or far more tightly controlled, amid fears in Europe that, for example, the excessive and unnecessary use of antibiotics is leading to humans becoming more resistant to their effects.

chlorine alertThe EU position has always been that to allow such practices here, or to allow the importation of such produce from America, would inevitably drive down hygiene and welfare standards across the continent, and hugely increase the risk to human health. It is hard to disagree. Post-treatment of this kind could seriously increase the risk of bacteria-based diseases such as salmonella – dirty abattoirs with sloppy standards would rely on chlorination as a decontaminant, rather than making sure their basic hygiene protocols were of a high standard.

However, Dr. Fox effectively rubbished these concerns:

“In a debate which should be about how we make our contribution to global liberalisation and the increased prosperity of both the UK, the US and our trading partners…the British media are obsessed with chlorine-washed chickens – a detail of the very end stage of one sector of a potential free trade agreement. I say no more than that.”

Did you hear the one about the three chickens?

Research by the Adam Smith Institute, a neo-liberal UK think-tank, suggests that concerns over chlorinated chicken are overstated, and have in fact been debunked by the EU’s own research scientists. According to the report’s author, Pete Spence, you would need to consume three whole chickens per day to get anywhere near the safe limit for chlorine use:

“A person would have to eat around five per cent of their body weight in chicken (nearly three whole birds a day for the typical British man) to reach the safety limit, according to European Commission data.

US imports could also help to bring down British grocery bills. A whole kilo of chicken costs an American shopper around 21 per cent less than the equivalent on UK shelves.”

Cabinet split

Unfortunately for Dr. Fox (and perhaps fortunately for the rest of us), his Cabinet colleague and Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, does not agree. Gove has said the UK will retain existing animal welfare and environmental standards when we leave the EU, and would in fact be seeking to improve them.

The power of the US food industry should not be underestimated, however, and you wouldn’t bet against an agreement which permits the importation of such toxic and unnatural ‘foods’ into the UK under the umbrella of ‘free trade’. That really would put the Fox amongst the chickens.

We swim in chlorinated swimming pools, many of us drink fluoridated tap water and use fluoridated toothpaste. But eating food routinely treated with what is essentially bleach to compensate for lax or non-existant food hygiene and animal welfare practices? To accept that would be to participate in a race to the bottom and where would we end up?

To lighten the mood, perhaps we should get back to that corny old joke book. So why did the chicken cross the Atlantic?

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