The European Union has told Boris Johnson’s U.K. government to take chlorinated (chlorine washed) chicken off the table in any trade talks with the United States if it is to achieve a post-Brexit bilateral deal of its own with the bloc at the end of the year.
As first reported by the Guardian, a clause protecting the “health and product sanitary quality in the food and agriculture sector” has been inserted into the EU’s negotiating mandate — which was officially published today — on the recommendation of France and supported by all other member states. The U.K. will publish its own mandate on Thursday as the two parties formally open talks for their post-Brexit relationship at the start of March.
As well as weakening Britain’s negotiating hand with Donald Trump’s administration, the move presents an obstacle for the U.S., which sees the export of poultry to the U.K. as a major new opportunity in a post-Brexit world. By contrast, the EU, whose welfare standards are significantly higher than in the U.S. (and where, for example, chlorine washing is banned), fear any encroachment on the European poultry market from American farmers risks significantly undercutting agricultural exports from member states.
Underpinning the EU’s strategy is the principle of a “level playing field.” In the mandate, it says: “Given the union and the United Kingdom’s geographic proximity and economic interdependence, the envisaged partnership must ensure open and fair competition, encompassing robust commitments to ensure a level playing field.”
The U.S. is the world’s largest producer of poultry and is, in part, able to keep production costs lower than farmers in Europe due to the comparatively weak welfare standards permitted. The employment of genetic modification, use of growth hormones, pesticides, and antibiotics has long prevented the U.S. from striking a deal with the EU. More fundamentally, European law states that products must be tested for food safety before they are used, whereas in the U.S., chemicals and other food manufacturing products are assumed safe until found to be dangerous, with individual producers responsible for mitigating risk.
Chlorine-washed chicken has become one of the most talked-about issues in the stand-off between the the U.K. and EU and the preliminary courting taking place between the U.S. and U.K. governments. For many who opposed Brexit’s inherent isolationism, it represents a prime example of the loosening of regulation and lowering of standards formed by consensus in the union; for others, who supported the withdrawal, it’s a symbol of how Britain can break free from the strangulating rules decided by foreign lawmakers.
And yet, the problem for the U.K. government has always been one of optics. Even if they could sell this, would people buy it? For certain, British farmers who fear being undercut themselves, would be among those opposing its import. Chlorine in this country is associated with killing germs in public swimming pools or being a main ingredient in bleach, which is used to disinfect bathrooms. It is not the sort of thing consumers readily associate with meat production, no matter the arguments coming from the United States emphasising its compatibility with food safety. Indeed, sensing a PR mountain too difficult to scale, the Americans have sought to downplay how much chlorine-washed chicken is actually produced nowadays; instead an emphasis has been placed on poultry washed in lactic acid and other disinfectants.
Ultimately, whether or not British supermarkets will be stocking poultry disinfected in America this time next year will come down to how comprehensively Britain extricates itself from the European Union and just how much the Americans want to break into this new market.