What is chlorinated chicken and what has it got to do with Trump?

3rd Jun 19 | Lifestyle

Ahead of tonight’s Dispatches documentary, we take a look at the growing fears around chemically-washed poultry.

Among the many issues surrounding President Donald Trump’s visit to the UK this week is a debate about chicken, believe it or not – namely whether the UK will accept chlorinated American chicken as part of a post-Brexit trade deal.

As the Trump administration seeks new opportunities in trading as Britain prepares to leave the EU, there’s a very real possibility of chemically-washed meat being imported into the UK.

International trade secretary Liam Fox previously told BBC’s Newsnight that the backlash was purely an “animal welfare” issue, but campaigners are concerned that the process masks poor hygiene practices in the food production line.

Tonight, a Channel 4 Dispatches documentary goes undercover in a major US poultry processing plant to investigate the claims.

Here’s what you need to know…

What is chlorinated chicken?

Chlorinated chicken refers to poultry that has been washed in chlorine or other chemicals.

In the US, farms are allowed to wash chicken carcasses in water containing chlorine dioxide, to kill potentially harmful organisms such as E coli, campylobacter and salmonella.

Why is it controversial?

Washing chicken in chlorine or any other substance other than water was banned by the European Union in 1997.

Some believe that using disinfectants to clean meat can compensate for poor hygiene and animal welfare earlier in the production line. Advocates believe that banning chlorine leads to higher standards of cleanliness, as farmers cannot rely on a chemical wash to kill harmful bacteria.

chicken legs
Washing chicken in chlorine is referred ti as pathogen reduction treatment (iStock/PA)

The evidence that the chlorine used to wash chicken is bad for health is currently inconclusive. However, currently the US reports a higher rate of food poisoning than in the UK.

Annually, 14.7% (48m) of the US population suffer from an illness, versus 1.5% (1m) in the UK, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The issue represents wider concerns around some environmental standards that differ between the US and the UK.

Hormone-fed beef and unlabelled genetically modified food are two other major concerns for campaigners.

What does Dispatches documentary find?

Dispatches presenter Kate Quilton
Dispatches presenter Kate Quilton (Channel 4/PA)

The Dispatches investigation, lead by Kate Quilton, found what they describe as “serious health and safety concerns” in Tyson Foods, a major US poultry processing plant. They produce one in five of all beef, pork and chicken products in US.

The poultry supplier does not wash their chicken in chlorine, but they use other chemicals to kill harmful bacteria.

Dispatches sent an undercover reporter to apply for a labour job at the plant, to get a better idea of what conditions were like inside. After a week of training, she was sent to work in the meat packing part of the plant, which involves handling the birds after they’ve been killed, washed in chemicals to remove harmful bacteria and prepared for the supermarket.

Her job was to pack the chicken into trays. She said: “When we first went in for training, we were given instructional videos on what the conditions were supposed to be like. The more I worked in the plant, the more I realised those standards weren’t exactly being met.

“On several occasions I saw supervisors touching chicken with bare hands. The hygiene in the plant, it was just really kind of a… a shocker.”

Among the major worries were footage showing piles of chicken on conveyor belts for long periods of time, which experts believe could lead to cross-contamination.

Chicken innards can be seen on the floor, with raw chicken pieces blocking the drain in the sinks.

Dispatches chicken
Dispatches undercover in a factory (Channel 4/PA)

Supervisors were recorded touching raw chicken with bare hands, while the undercover footage also sparked major concerns about the welfare of the factory workers. One worker featuring in the documentary had three fingers amputated after being asked to operate a machine they hadn’t been trained to use. Another said they had been refused a bathroom break.

The documentary comes as scientists from the EU and the World Health Organisation debate whether there is sufficient evidence to suggest that chemical washing even works effectively in removing bacteria.

Dispatches showed its undercover footage to Ron Spellman, a former meat inspector and current assistant secretary general of the European Food and Meat Inspectors Association, who said: “I’m very surprised. I didn’t imagine that they worked to such low standards in the US, and such a big factory. It’s not as if it’s a small plant.

“From what we’ve seen, it would appear that the EU are right, it would appear that the US are working to much lower standards than we’ve got in Britain and in the EU.”

Chickens waiting to give them food. Chicken with empty neck

When asked if he thought the standards were acceptable, he said: “Definitely not, no. Definitely not. This would be a really really big step backwards for us.”

In response to Dispatches’ findings Tyson Foods said that they could not respond in detail without seeing the footage, but said: “Our plants only operate in the continuous presence of U.S. government inspectors who, along with our own food safety staff, ensure we’re producing good food that’s safe to eat.

“Tyson Foods cares deeply about the safety of our employees and consumers. We have a robust quality and safety program that includes training for new employees, continuous safety education and daily meetings at our facilities to keep safety top of mind. Employees are encouraged to report any workplace safety concerns to their supervisor, a member of management or our compliance and ethics hotline.”

The Truth About Chlorinated Chicken – Channel 4 Dispatches, airs Monday June 3, 8pm, Channel 4. 

© Press Association 2019