Richard Short is the Deputy Director of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists, and was Parliamentary Candidate for Warrington North in 2015.
So you think chlorinated food is going to ruin your health? If you have been to a restaurant and eaten the salad, then it’s too late, I’m afraid.
For EU Food safety rules demand that salads must be disinfected: this almost always means using chlorine and, trust me, even the highest-end restaurants do it. Quite right, too: it’s safe, very effective and it’s cheap. So if the EU is so demanding of our salads, why such a flap about giving the same treatment to chicken?
Chlorinated chicken has become the symbol of everything bad about trade with the United States – or indeed, any other country that treats chicken in this way, the reasons for which are many and varied. The anti-chlorine narrative is centred around food safety, with some commentators claiming the chlorine itself is harmful, which is simply untrue.
A more intelligent argument is that US welfare and abattoir standards for poultry are less strict, allowing higher density flocks which in turn, it is argued, leads to spread of pathogenic bacteria such as salmonella. The EU banned the use of chlorine in 1997, preferring a ‘farm to fork” approach to improve food safety. This approach places regulations on husbandry, feedstuffs, abattoir hygiene and food production – with more and more regulation creeping in over the years.
The US places its reliance on voluntary industry standards for husbandry, but has equally strict regulations for abattoirs. And it has food business standards which eclipse those of the EU – as anyone who has been in cross hairs of a United States Public Health Inspector will testify.
So who is doing better by the consumer? The clear winner is the United States – and we only need to look at the infection rate from one food poisoning bug to understand why. The most common worldwide pathogen present in chicken is the campylobacter bacteria. It exists in, on and around chicken and, while it causes the chicken no harm, it is the single highest cause of bacterial gastro-enteritis in the EU.
In the UK alone there has been a steady 50-60,000 cases annually reported. In the entire United States, by comparison, there were just over 6000 cases reported. In both countries, there are many unreported cases but, as both jurisdictions have well established and highly advanced public surveillance, the officially reported cases are an equivalent benchmark.
The EU’s intransigence on not allowing the chlorination of chicken is economically significant. Not only does it create an impasse in any trade negotiations with the US but, closer to home, it has a direct cost to the British economy in working days lost due to illness, with the associated costs to the NHS and social care.
The narrative of the Brexit debate has led to the chlorination of chicken becoming the antithesis of food safety. The irony is that, as well as the positive impact on food safety, the EU itself has publicly declared there are no food safety grounds to ban the process.
Yet it has been barred since the late twentieth century and, in doing so, the EU has banned the production of a safe, cheap source of meat for EU consumers. The sooner we start using chlorine, the faster we will see infection rates fall – and the sooner we’ll see hard pressed consumers more able to buy high quality, good value protein.