What's the (trade) deal with chlorinated chicken? – Louise Mercieca
You may have noticed an increase in conversations, media reports and news coverage about Chlorinated Chicken! This hopefully hasn’t been something you have previously been aware of but in recent months, despite Covid-19 still dominating the news, it’s been hard to avoid!
In this article I wanted to look at what’s happening but to be honest, I am not interested in getting overly political. My interest is always on the nutritional considerations and thus the impact on our health.
Firstly, what is the potential issue and what does it have to do with chlorinated chicken?
The issue - There have been conversations around the proposed UK-US trade deal post Brexit. The most controversial element of this is around food and the allegation that the US will not sign a deal with the UK unless the UK accepts US food standards. The issue is that, currently, the UK and the US have very different food standards.
What does this have to do with chlorinated chicken? This is just one element but has become the marketing angle of this trade deal and, potentially, rightly so. It is certainly something that grabs attention! What exactly is chlorinated chicken?
According to the Soil Association: -
“Chlorinated chicken is poultry meat that has been washed with chlorine. After slaughter, the chickens are rinsed with an antimicrobial chlorine wash to protect consumers from food-borne diseases. This is done to treat high levels of bacteria, a symptom of poor hygiene and low animal welfare conditions not allowed in UK farming”
The Soil Association states that – “The practice of chlorine washing chicken is banned in the UK, but it is common practice in the US poultry industry.”
The approach that we take in the UK is what is referred to as ‘Farm to Fork’. This approach is used along the production chain ensuring high standards and that the food is safe. These higher welfare and hygiene standards mean that chlorine washing is not necessary in the UK.
There are many issues going on here that concern me. If you google images of chlorinated chicken you will see for yourself why this isn’t an appealing option! There are many areas to address: -
For me, the issue isn’t just the nature of chlorine washing it is why the chlorine washing is necessary in the first place – according to the RSPCA “The problem the EU has with chlorinated chicken is that antimicrobial treatments can be used to compensate for poor hygiene along the supply chain, particularly on farms”.
I spoke with a few local farmers to get their expert opinion on this issue. Angus says;
“Initially I was disgusted from an animal welfare perspective, at our farm we breed animals to high ethical standards without any harmful chemicals or antibiotics. Our animals are able to be completely free range, slow grown with care given to what they eat to enhance the flavour and nutritional content of the meat. With this in mind I then started to think that there may be an increase in demand for our products. I have seen, through farming colleagues, that there is a movement in the US to opt out of the supermarkets and source quality produce. My issue here is that only applies to those who can choose. There may be financial and/or logistical reasons why many can’t. I fear that the majority of people’s health will suffer as a result of eating poorer quality produce and hope that we don’t follow the path of the US where I feel that the majority of food produced is empty calories – food without nutrition”
Angus Clarke – Waterloo Cottage Farm
Going back to the issue of why the chlorination is needed the Soil Association state “Keepingchickens in large flocks in dirty conditions makes it much more likely that bacteria will develop and spread” These conditions increase the need for antibiotics fed to the chickens and this combination does not equal quality meat. It is obviously better for animal welfare, hygiene and food quality to have high standards but is chlorine washing actually safe?
If we park the issue of animal welfare for a second and look at food safety... how safe is washing food in chlorine? You may well think, like I did, that chlorine belongs in a swimming pool! According to the European Food Safety Authority “exposure to chlorine residues is of no safety concern”. In fact, it is commonly used to wash salad. The issue is that the animal living conditions encourage disease-causing bacteria (such as listeria and salmonella) and research from Southampton University indicates that these bacteria ‘remain active’ after chlorine washing. This may explain why statistics form the US Centre for Disease Control states that
“Each year 1 in 6 Americans (approx. 50 million people) get sick from the food they eat.”
If we compare this to the UK figures from our Food Standards Agency our figures are around 1 in 28 people getting sick from the food they eat. The standards we currently have in the UK are evidentially robust and ethical in terms of welfare, hygiene and food safety.
You may read this and agree with Farmer Angus Clarke. You may choose to support local farmers and buy meat where you can trace the farm to fork approach and rest easy that you are avoiding these foods. But, will it be that easy? Unfortunately, I predict not! For the purpose of this article I have focused largely on the issue of chicken but many more foods are included in this potential deal and according to Which? “US negotiators appear likely to oppose the labelling of US products imported into the UK”.
Currently, in the EU, there are several ingredients present in US foods but banned from the EU Market. In a quote from an article in the New York Times - U.S. eats ingredients banned in EU foods: -
“The European Union prohibits or severely restricts many food additives that have been linked to cancer that are still used in American-made bread, cookies, soft drinks and other processed foods. Europe also bans the use of several drugs that are used in farm animals in the United States. In some cases, food-processing companies will reformulate a food product for sale in Europe but continue to sell the product with the additives in the United States, said Lisa Y. Lefferts, senior scientist at the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, a food safety advocacy organization.”
If this trade deal goes ahead, the need to reformulate products for the UK market will no longer apply and it will be extremely difficult to know what ingredients you are buying and what products are affected.
You may be able to have a degree of control over foods consumed in the home but what about the wider environment?
Will school, residential care home and hospital meals be impacted? Possibly! If there is an economical sway in purchasing decisions then cheaper options could be sourced.
Take-away meals – will you question where the chicken comes from in your Balti?
Restaurants and Pubs – how would this impact on your desire to eat out? Would you want to choose places where you could source the origin of the meat?
One of the issues I am keen to push through my nutrition work is that being healthy shouldn’t only be an option for those who can afford to be. My concern with this potential trade deal is that it will disproportionately affect those already affected by poverty and ill-health.
According to The Health Foundation - “1 in 5 of the UK population live in poverty”
This has a profound yet complex impact on the quality of and longevity of life but quite startling is the gap shown here between the most and least deprived areas of the UK
“The healthy life expectancy gap between the most and least deprived parts of the UK is 19 years”
Source – The Health Foundation
Nutrition plays a vital role in health protection yet making healthier choices can often be more expensive. I discuss this in my article on World Children’s Day. My concern with the potential trade deal will be that the cheaper foods will more the most available and the healthier foods harder to source. For those reliant on one shop close to them rather than having the luxury of sourcing farm shops and local butchers, the food available here will be their only choice.
In a recent interview with an NHS Paediatrician Dr Camila Benouali informed me that “80-90% of the causes of death are due to lifestyle diseases”. These include not are not limited to Type 2 Diabetes and Heart Disease. There are significant links between obesity and certain cancers, in fact 1 in 20 cancer cases are caused by excess weight and the risk is increased the longer a person is overweight for. (Source Cancer Research UK).
Obesity is (in my opinion) not to do with greed and laziness, it is a complex combination of issues resulting from poor nutrition. Poor nutrition stems from the consumption of empty calories. Food that contains an energy value but limited or zero nutrition. These foods fuel obesity for many reasons: -
Quantity – due to the nature of many of the added ingredients these foods encourage over-consumption as you don’t naturally feel full as you eat them.
Addictive – again due to the nature of these foods and generally being high in sugar and fats they are biologically addictive to the body resulting in cravings, habits and emotional eating.
Energy – it can often feel confusing that you have eaten a lot yet never feel like you have any energy. This is very common with consuming empty calorie foods as you are not getting what the body really needs. But, lacking in energy often leads to doing less physical activity which brings its’ own issues!
Nutrition and movement play a huge role in preventative health: -
What you eat can impact on your mood, I see huge links between a poor diet and mental health.
What you eat affects conditions like Fibromyalgia – I have seen clients remove the need for medication through nutrition and lifestyle changes
Nutrition supports your immune system and ultimately your immunological age, your immune system can age ahead of your biological age. You can be 80 with an immunological age of 40 or vice versa depending on how you live your life.
I don’t want to see preventative health as something only the wealthier can afford. Everyone deserves access to quality food and everyone should understand the vital link between food and health. In my opinion, this potential trade deal would be a huge backwards step in our nations health and would place a large burden on an already overstretched health care system to ‘pick up the pieces’.
Jamie Oliver – Open letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson
Louise Mercieca is an award-winning Nutritional Therapist, Author and Presenter with her own food channel for Early Years nutrition, which you can more about here; https://www.earlyyearsfood.tv/ She’s passionate about formative nutrition and also works with adults on preventative nutrition. You can find out more about Louise and her way of working by reading her introductory article for CACHE Alumni here; https://www.cachealumni.org.uk/article/the-impact-of-food-louise-mercieca/