LONDON – At this post-Brexit moment, amid the pandemic in the UK, whose economy is plagued by recession and the royal family in grief and turmoil, it is difficult to find a theme that unites this fragile nation. But US chickens – yes, the low, gurgling farm animal that is eaten by millions in all 50 states every day – have made it.
Everyone hates them.
The strange thing is that US chicken is not sold anywhere in the UK, and if people find their way here it never will be.
What exactly have US chickens done to terrify the British so thoroughly, even though few of the latter have ever tried the former?
The short answer is that some U.S. chicken carcasses are washed in chlorine to eliminate potentially harmful pathogens. Americans have devoured these birds without a fuss for years, but in the UK, US chickens are now tied to the word “chlorinated” the way warning signs are on cigarettes – that is always. US chickens have been denounced by editors, academics, politicians, farmers, and a host of activists. In October, a group of protesters dressed in chicken costumes gathered around Parliament.
“Beware of Chlorine” was emblazoned in Hazmat script on the front of her yellow onesies.
US poultry has long been ridiculed in the UK, but only became the subject of public vitriol a few years ago when it became clear that the two countries would sign a new free trade agreement after Britain left the European Union. Arguably the biggest anticipated sticking point in such a business is U.S. food standards, which are widely viewed here as subpar and tolerant of dirt and shabby conditions in search of profit.
It’s all a big smear, says the U.S. poultry industry, and an excuse to discourage a British industry from competing with far bigger American rivals. But dig a little and it quickly becomes clear that the chlorine chicken phobia is about more than edible birds. Somehow, America’s dealings with Gallus gallus domesticus, as it is known to scholars, have become a symbol of Britain’s fears that a trade deal with the United States will turn Britain for bad without the right guard rails.
“This is a classic example of how belief has overtaken evidence and embedded it in a complex sociopolitical discourse that is almost certainly motivated by something very different from this issue,” said Ian Boyd, professor of biology at the University of St Andrews. “Chlorine washed chicken is almost certainly a proxy for much deeper questions of trust.”
The details of this distrust are difficult to pinpoint. Most of it is a free-floating feeling that the United States is a careless juggernaut, and if trade between the two countries – now valued at roughly $ 230 billion a year – is unrestrained, it is not to see what the Americans will sell and ruin.
A similar fear was evident in the case articulated by some Brexiters. The United Kingdom is unique, and wrapping it into a union of 27 other states undermined its uniqueness, the argument goes. The word “sovereignty” came up frequently, along with the suggestion that much of it had been lost to the rest of Europe and had to be reclaimed.
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April 23, 2021 at 1:31 p.m. ET
In a way, “chlorinated chicken” is the new sovereignty, and that is reflected in some of the languages used by vocal critics. As Tim Lang, Professor Emeritus of Food Policy, said in an interview: “The question is whether the United Kingdom will become the 51st state in America.”
For Professor Lang, the prospect of a US poultry invasion is not just an abstract concern for agrarian imperialism. It’s about health and safety. He noted that a number of high-profile food fears and outbreaks of salmonella, E. coli and mad cow disease hit the British during the late 80s and early 90s. The Food Standards Agency was founded in 2000 with a mandate to rethink the country’s processing systems. At around the same time, the European Union adopted the so-called precautionary principle for food and environmental safety.
“When in doubt,” he wrote in an email, summarizing the principle, “consumer or eco-interests triumph over business.” It is better to assume that there might be a problem than to do it, only to find out later that there was a problem. “
He and others say the U.S. approach to food processing is to let hygiene slip down while feeding, waxing, and slaughtering, and in the end, make up for mistakes with a good disinfectant. It doesn’t work very well, say critics. As evidence, Prof. Lang had a colleague submit an article quoting the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which found that one in six Americans suffered from a food-borne disease every year. In the UK, that number as determined by the Food Standards Agency is one in 60.
In other words, the Chlorine Dunk isn’t just a little gross. It’s ineffective.
Nonsense, says Tom Super, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, which represents the companies that process about 95 percent of U.S. chicken. He noted that the UK Food Standards Agency website offers a warning about comparing food-borne disease rates between countries.
“The range of study methods varies between and within countries,” says the website. “This makes any comparison and any interpretation of differences difficult.”
Mr Super notes that only 5 percent of chickens are now washed in chlorine because the industry has moved on to a better cleaner. (Peracetic acid if you’re curious.) But focusing on how chickens are washed lacks the security and care built into the US system, he added, starting with how eggs are hatched and chickens are fed . Lower hygiene standards? A total canard, an apology for protectionism, and one that glosses over the results of the European Food Safety Authority, which found no evidence in 2008 that chlorinated chickens are unsafe.
“Science is on our side; The data is on our side, ”said Mr Super. “Americans eat about 150 million servings of chicken every day, and practically all of them are safe to eat. We would send the same chicken to the UK that we now feed our children and that we send to 100 countries around the world. “
The timing of a US-UK trade deal is unknown. The Biden government has said little on the subject. Katherine Tai, the US trade representative, said at her confirmation hearing that she wanted a pact that “prioritizes the interests of American workers and supports a strong recovery in our economy.”
Several trade experts said negotiations could take years, largely because the deal doesn’t appear to be a high priority in the United States. But a long wait might be just what the British need, said Professor Boyd of St. Andrews. Agriculture here has long had a claim to the national psyche that far outweighs its actual economic importance, he explained. Consumers here are more interested in maintaining an institution – agriculture – than buying something cheaper schnitzel. And educating the UK public about studies and test results is not going to change that.
“If we addressed the US chicken fears with evidence-based arguments and expensive advertising campaigns, it would be different,” said Professor Boyd. “This is a sociopolitical problem that can be resolved by having an enlightened partnership for building a trading relationship, not by hitting people with scientific facts.”
David Henig, director of the UK Trade Policy Project, which is part of a think tank in Brussels, said trade between countries will continue using conditions and agreements that have been in place for years. When the United States is ready to tackle the delicate issues, the British will be ready.
“The British side is very interested in a deal,” he said. “It’s just not keen on the chickens.”