U.K. worries Brexit could bring ‘chlorinated chicken’ from U.S.

Candice Choi
Associated Press

New York – Could Brexit bring America’s “chlorinated chicken” to the United Kingdom?

The European Union has long refused to import poultry from the United States that is routinely rinsed with chemical washes to kill germs. But the United Kingdom’s planned exit from the EU is putting the practice back in the spotlight, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson even taunting Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn by calling him a “chlorinated chicken.”

The use of antimicrobial washes and sprays is widespread in the U.S. chicken industry, with companies applying them to kill germs at various stages in the production process.

The term has come to sum up concerns that Britain could be pressured to accept looser food safety standards when negotiating its own post-Brexit trade deals.

Unlike in the EU, the use of antimicrobial sprays and washes is widespread in the U.S. chicken industry. Companies apply them to kill germs at various stages during processing, such as when carcasses are de-feathered, gutted or any other point when feces could splatter and spread germs like salmonella. The chemicals used in rinses have to be approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and their use is limited to specified amounts. The agency says the rinses are present in finished products at insignificant levels.

The U.S. chicken industry says the use of chlorine has declined to about 10% of the country’s plants, as other chemicals have become more common. It says the rinses help improve food safety, but that it’s difficult to completely rid raw chicken of salmonella and campylobacter germs, which don’t sicken birds and are commonly found in their guts.

Campylobacter isn’t widely known in the U.S. but is a major cause of food poisoning.

Critics of food safety regulation in the U.S. say the use of antimicrobial washes and sprays underscores how widespread the bacteria are in raw chicken, especially considering the persistence of food poisoning outbreaks. Tony Corbo of Food and Water Watch, a group that has called for stricter meat regulations, said the rinses could be used to mask broader sanitary problems during production.

Though it’s legal to sell raw chicken with salmonella and campylobacter in supermarkets, the USDA tries to control germs with standards on how much can be in the raw chicken tested at processing plants.

In a statement, the U.K.’s Food Standards Agency said chlorine washes can be used on fresh produce like salad, but not on meat or animal products.