Despite Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Michael Gove promising that chlorine-washed chicken would be staying off British menus after fellow Brexiter Liam Fox avoided the question, the Tories’ former Brexit minister suggested it may be on post-Brexit menus after all.
The EU has banned chlorine-washed chicken as it is associated with worse conditions for rearing chickens and so the issue has become a touchstone in the debate about whether British food safety standards would drop to allow the chemicals used in American foods but banned in the EU, if Britain enters a post-Brexit trade deal with the US.
Steve Baker resigned as a Minister at the Department for Exiting the EU, along with Suella Braverman and David Davis in protest at Theresa May’s Chequers Brexit plan.
Baker is part of the shadowy European Research Group (ERG) “government within a government” led by Jacob Rees-Mogg and advocating the hardest of Brexits.
Speaking to the BBC’s Today programme, Steve Baker insisted that chlorine-washed chicken was just “clean chicken”.
“Nobody is proposing to reduce standards in the UK and I don’t think anyone believes that there is any kind of constituency in the UK for a reduction in food standards, but if you go over to the US and raise this issue of chlorinated chicken nobody knows what you’re talking about because it’s just not an issue,” said the Conservative MP for Wycombe. “In a sense what people are objecting to is clean chicken.”
But British farmers, animal welfare bodies and scientists might beg to differ with the ex Brexit minister.
In the US where farming is large scale and profit margins tight, animal welfare standards and food regulations tend to be looser than in the EU, where there are minimum standards in animal welfare.
This includes poultry rearing where chickens must have a minimum amount of space, light and ventilation during their lives.
The cramped conditions in which US poultry is reared often means chickens have limited room to even move and so are more prone to diseases, which is why chlorine-washing their carcases has become common practice.
US chicken has been banned in the EU since 1997 because of this process. EU scientists’ reports have highlighted the fear that relying on this practice could lead to worse overall food hygiene standards as it all relies on the disinfectant wash which may not work for very dirty poultry. Instead food hygiene and animal welfare minimum standards should be met throughout the poultry farming process EU scientists believe.
Organisations such as The Humane Society of the United States have documented a lack of welfare and hygiene in US chicken farms.
As chlorine washing is a process rather than an ingredient if US chicken were sold in the UK, it is unlikely British consumers would ever know if the chicken on their plate had been chlorine washed if allowed into UK supermarkets.
The Chlorine itself isn’t used in levels which are toxic, but there have been reports of salt added to poultry to mask the taste and chlorine washing causing carcinogens such as semicarbazide and trihalomethanes to form in the poultry meat if the concentration of chlorine is too high. Though the US Food Safety and Inspection Service do set maximum levels.
A recent study by microbiologists from Southampton University and published in the US journal mBio, found that listeria and salmonella actually remain active after chlorine washing. The chemical treatment just makes it impossible to culture them in the lab, giving a false sense of hygiene.
Recent research by Sustain, found that food poisoning in the US could be 10 times higher than in the UK.
Each year 380 deaths due to salmonella poisoning in food are officially reported by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while according to Public Health England there was not a single death due to salmonella in the ten years from 2005 to 2015.
Richard Griffith, the chief executive of the British Poultry Council Richard Griffith has said that US farming’s use of chemical washes hides “the shortcomings in their production methods and belies their attitude both to food safety and being open with consumers.
“It seems that the US, even with growing scientific evidence, is still trying to offload food on us of higher risk and lower quality than our own.”