A poultry processing plant in France. Europe banned treating chicken carcasses with chlorine in the 1990s out of fear that it could cause cancer.
Christophe Di Pascale/Corbis
Mute Schimpf doesn’t want to eat American chicken. That’s because most U.S. poultry is chilled in antimicrobial baths that can include chlorine to keep salmonella and other bacteria in check. In Europe, chlorine treatment was banned in the 1990s out of fear that it could cause cancer.
“In Europe there is definitely a disgust about chlorinated chicken,” says Schimpf, a food activist with Friends of the Earth Europe, an environmental group.
The chlorine vs. no chlorine debate has come up a lot recently in the context of a massive trans-Atlantic trade agreement. This week, negotiators from Europe and the U.S. are meeting in Washington for a seventh round of talks aimed at creating the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP.
The agreement would create the world’s biggest free-trade zone and touch everything from banking to agriculture. But there’s a lot of opposition to TTIP in Europe, where some fear it would degrade their food standards. And activists have found the perfect symbol for their fight in chlorinated American chicken.
“You can’t be mad at someone who makes such a tasty chlorinated chicken,” he quips. “Mmm, it has a slight aroma of kiddy pool.”
But the chlorine isn’t really a public health concern, says Scott Russell, a professor of poultry processing at the University of Georgia. “Most of these concerns about chemical use and those kinds of things are blown up in the media to become a problem that really doesn’t exist,” he says.
American processors use about a cap full of chlorine per gallon, or 50 parts per million, in a water tank that chills the chicken carcasses. That chlorine, he explains, is used to disinfect the poultry. He says it gets washed off and poses no health threat to consumers.
But the EU takes a different approach — it operates on the precautionary principle, a kind of abundance of caution when it comes to any substance that enters your body.