Before we go any further I must thank dozens of witty social media types who came up with this easily hijacked pun about the latest Brexit related horror that is the possibility of US chlorine washed chicken ending up on your Sunday roast plate in the UK. Well done you.
The table-top impact of Brexit has been doing the media rounds recently as our glorious leaders start to chat about that pesky EU divorce and the resulting impact on the import/export market in the UK. Cut to Liam Fox, half witted Trade Secretary who threw out a casual remark about the possibility of importing American chicken to our fair shores. Cut to someone pointing out that it is common practice across the pond to wash chicken carcasses in a chlorine solution to remove all those pesky food bugs that have accumulated over the sad, short and filthy life of a mass farmed yankee chicken. Cut to general outcry about why we don’t want any of that over here thank you very bloody much.
It’s a bit sad really, because in this blogger’s opinion yes, chlorine washed chicken is a vile and horrid idea but not for the reasons you might immediately think. For clarity, chlorine is an element, a halogen, atomic no 17. It is both complex and common stuff you know, found in plastics and mustard gas and, er, table salt. Yes, table salt. The kind you put on your chips. Before you get upset about chemicals in or on your dinner, it is important to understand them. Breathe in some nice elemental chlorine gas and you are likely to die in a really unpleasant fashion. Treat some water with it and you have yourself a nice, clean pool to swim in. React it in the right conditions with explosive alkaline-metal sodium and you can pair it with some limes and tequila to liven up a Saturday night. OK so the last one will give you a headache but its not the health disaster that various panic artists might have you believe. There is chlorine in your tap water and in your own stomach acid and although having your breaded nuggets pre dipped in thin bleach might not be very palatable in theory, it isn’t something one should really worry about too much.
So should we happily accept a US trade deal which will bring chlorine treated chicken to our supermarket shelves?
In a darkly comic echo of the circumstances that lead us to the Brexit vote itself, a lot of people are missing the point behind what they think they are angry about. Don’t ask if you should eat chlorine. Ask why it is that anyone would wash their chicken in chlorine in the first place, because I can assure that your average drumstick does not need to be protected from algal bloom. I could direct you to many wordy and horrifying sources that will tell you all about intensive farming methods and chemical interventions in the UK, and they may well tug on your heart strings and curl your toes and push you further towards almond milk in your latte and Meat Free Monday. The short follow up to this is that it is worse across the Atlantic. Widespread use of antibiotic poultry feed in America keeps their chickens arguably protected against disease and free to spend their average 47 days of life doing nothing but eat and grow fat. This is good news for the accountants as they get bigger birds and a smaller waste margin. It is also good news for those wonderful singled celled genetic freaks that are Drug Resistant Bacteria. These are all that is left once all that nice medicine has done its work on those chickens- superbugs that medicine can’t treat. If these superbugs get into the food chain, buffalo wing fans everywhere are in for a world of hurt. In the EU, we have some very tight regulations about what it is and isn’t OK to feed farm animals because no one wants an MRSA epidemic. In the states, they just bleach those superbugs away after slaughter. But is this a big deal really? The end result is surely the same and that is safe meat on your plate and no fear that a chicken jalfreezi today will lead to an untreatable case of gastroenteritis tomorrow.
Be in no doubt, the need for chlorinating chicken carcasses comes from filthy, filthy living conditions rife with ever evolving superbugs and seriously unhappy chickens. I remember being an emotionally charged vegetarian for some years and being told by my teenage bestie’s moron of a Godmother that I shouldn’t feel sad for chickens, because they don’t have brains. They do have brains, they do feel stress, don’t kid yourself that just because they don’t write dark suicidal poetry about it that any intensively farmed animal is just a happy bundle of awareness-free sandwich filling.
If, when we leave the EU, we agree to import US raised chicken produce we will have to drop current food safety and animal welfare regulations considerably- you can’t allow imports of foodstuffs not subject to the same governance of those we produce in the UK. We won’t stop the chlorination in the US, so we will have to allow it here and thus the door opens to dozens of shady, cruel and questionable practices that won’t stop at dirty chickens and hormone jacked cows. For a bit of context, it is currently acceptable in the EU to keep a caged hen as long as it has its own floor space equivalent to one sheet of A4 paper. That is the minimum accepted standard. If you give them an extra inch or so of communal space for a scratch and a peck this becomes an ‘enriched’environment for them. That is the bare minimum, and that is considered one of the higher poultry welfare standards found in the world. I don’t think you need to be a militant vegan to agree that this is not the way to treat a living being, even if it is only living for a few weeks until it goes in your oven. I’m not a militant vegan, and I’m not blind or squeamish to the fact that I eat dead things. I’m happy with eating dead things, because I’m picky about the dead things that I eat both for my own health and theirs before they become my dead dinner and I am not alone in this. Infact I’m pretty low intensity on my animal rights activism when it comes to it. I shop free range and use vegan cosmetics when I can and feel guilty about it when I can’t. The more I educate myself on these matters, the more I learn and the more it becomes clear that there are other options on all menus.
I believe and hope beyond hope that the chlorination chicken question will remain eternally rhetorical. We cannot go backwards. In all likelihood, we won’t ever see it here, but we will see increasing pressure on our farmers with reduced subsidies and resulting legislative pressure to make it easier for them to survive against cheaper and lower quality imports from whatever desperate trade agreements we have to cling to when we are done limping out of Brussels. Unless what?
Unless you, the consumer, you the voter and you the person with internet access and a a bank account start to act now because you actually have a huge amount of power in the process of both saving our responsible farmers and improving the existence of livestock in this country.
Ask how your meat is farmed. Ask what kind of hens the eggs in that bit of cake in your local cafe came from. Find out where your local farmers are, how they run their show and buy from them as directly as you can. If your preferred mass supermarket of choice cannot easily and willingly provide clear and evidenced information about the welfare standards on the farms they are in business with then don’t shop there. We vote with our money every single day and it can be politically much more effective than that tick in the box in the polling booth every couple of years (or months as it seems recently). And while we’re talking about money, stop being so bloody tight. You can’t expect a grass fed, free range, wagu massaged organic rump steak to cost you less than a bus fare to Mc Donalds.
By supporting farmers who go above the minimum welfare standards we set a precedent and justify a fair market price. If enough people refuse to buy eggs from caged hens, then the market will have to adjust and the politicians will have to encourage and, more importantly, support reform in production because the only way to really ensure better methods is to ensure that as many people as possible are making money out of it. If you buy quality, welfare farmed British meat then your shop will sell out of it, and it will buy in more from those farmers. I you refuse to buy meat that isn’t clearly free range, then it stays on the self, and the supermarkets have to account for that waste in their profits and think about how much they want to source.
Demand quality, demand higher welfare standards and be prepared to pay for it.
Seek out direct purchasing opportunities, support good producers and for heavens sake shout about it rather than crying over chlorinated dinner crises that only exist in the tabloids.
Or carry on with your 99p burgers and enjoy your canned roast chicken. It’s up to you.
Some further reading on the subject here: