Why did the chlorinated chicken cross the road?

As European families celebrate the festive period with roast duck, goose, turkey or chicken how many realise that two out of three of their meals may contain dangerously high levels of bacteria? How does this sit alongside the view from many civil society organisations that current negotiations between the United States and the European Union could lead Europe to lower its food standards, as restrictions are lifted on banned foodstuffs including chlorinated chicken – the bête noire of European food safety?

It is very clear from negotiations to establish the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) that may Europeans believe that when it comes to food hygiene the US has lower standards and worse outcomes than we do. Even the stalwart of EU-US trade Angelika Merkel seems convinced as she reassured German voters that “There will be no imports of chlorinated chicken from the U.S.”

However, a closer examination of the evidence suggests this to be an overly simplified caricature. It is certainly the case in food safety that Europe has committed to a ‘farm to fork’ approach as opposed to a ‘go in once and go in hard’ approach favoured in the US – chlorinated chicken is ‘washed’ prior to sale in order remove most if not all potential pathogens. But given the sheer scale of modern food production one must question if such a worthy commitment to multi point regulation can be considered credible?

Europe is also viewed to be more cautious than the US, wedded as we are to the reassuring ‘precautionary principle’. For one noted commentator “Nobody has ever proven it, but they know it’s not good for people. It’s common sense. ” Evidence is emerging, not least with respect to the potential harm to workers of being exposed to chlorine in slaughterhouses but this is only the first part of a broader case that must be systematically addressed.

This is all brought into stark relief when one considers the last of the major challenges to the US approach to food hygiene, being that it is less effective than in Europe. Yet evidence from the TAG consultancy and based on an assessment of infection levels appears to support the contention that the simpler if cruder approach to food safety taken in the US could actually be providing the higher level of protection .

So is the precautionary principle as much shroud as strategy, with Europe ‘talking the talk’ but not ‘walking the walk’? Debate on the issue appears to be as toxic as some of the chickens on our supermarket shelves, with limited provision for meaningful public engagement. So, what levels of protection can be credibly delivered and at what price? Are the public willing to trade off safety against affordability? Can consumption be reduced to a level commiserate with effective food safety?

The worse of all worlds would be where those that can afford to choose an organic alternative do so, whilst the majority of the population are left exposed to a meaningful and growing health risk that is presented by policy makers as the best on offer either side of the pond. Food for thought indeed.