What’s wrong with American chicken?

Words: Christian Tighe   Illustration by Samuel Esquire

What’s wrong with American chicken?

Food standards in the public spotlight


As the UK looks to redefine its relationship with the European Union and the rest of the world, food standards have been thrown into the public spotlight.
What was until recently a boring corner of global politics has captured our collective imagination, with free trade agreements and tariffs becoming tabloid-worthy news. In particular, the regulatory systems that govern the things we love most, food and alcohol, have proven fertile ground for both gossip and those pushing an agenda.
To understand the rules that now govern what we eat and how it’s produced, it’s important to know the history behind them. When it comes to food legislation, the UK has had skin in the game since the beginning, enacting the first recognised animal welfare legislation in the 1800s. We have come a long way since the heady days of the Industrial Revolution, with global frameworks dictating how food is produced and prepared now the norm. In the UK, the Food Standards Agency sets out the dos and don’ts when it comes to what we eat and drink.

Don’t let political narratives fool you: while it is true that the UK’s current legislative framework is heavily influenced by its European Union membership status, the UK is one of a group of pioneer nations within the EU that lead on animal welfare and food standards. This often involves pushing standards that are later adopted across the continent. Since joining the EEC (which later became the EU) in 1973, the UK has mirrored the laws of other member states, allowing a frictionless flow of imports and exports across European borders. This has culminated in today’s stringent and holistic sanitary and welfare standards, which are arguably the best in the world for consumers. However, this relationship is set to change at least somewhat, post-Brexit, as the UK either attempts to woo trade partners with non-tariff barriers or break out on its own.
When it comes to choosing who to do business with, the US is always top of the pile. One of the most talked about possible side effects of a post-Brexit trade deal is cheap chlorinated chicken flooding into the British market. It may bring to mind the smell of your local swimming pool, but the term ‘chlorinated chicken’ actually refers to poultry that is dipped into a chemical wash after slaughter as a means of disinfecting the meat from disease-causing germs.
Despite some controversy, this method is still viewed as a safe, cheap and easy way of preventing salmonella and Campylobacter contamination. As a result, most US chicken is prepared in this way. It is worth noting that a 2018 study showed that a proportion of nasty pathogens can survive even a chemical bath.
Although cleaning with chlorine has been shown to be safe, poultry prepared in this way has been banned in the EU since 1997, effectively stopping imports of US chicken. Confusingly, the EU’s problem isn’t with chlorine or the washing process, as this is often used a means of washing vegetables and salads found in British supermarkets. Instead it reflects the concern that post-slaughter cleaning can be used to mask the cramped and poor conditions in which American birds are often raised. To get cheap American chicken onto shop shelves, the UK would have to lower its existing animal welfare standards, a possible concession in any trade deal.
Ironically the US has had similar problems to those the UK now faces when striking its own agreements and as a result has implemented bans relating to preparation procedures. For example, Chinese poultry has been sold in the US since 2017 only on the proviso that it must be cooked when imported, one of the simplest ways of killing pathogens.
Chlorine is not the only chemical that gets stopped at EU Border Control. One of the other key differences in agriculture across the pond is the use of growth hormone-loaded animal feed and chemical-releasing implants usually placed behind an animal’s ear. The US is often viewed as lax when it comes to the synthetic hormones put into cattle food to boost growth. The practice was banned by the EU in 1987 with some revision in 2003 due to safety concerns around a possible link to cancer.
It is true that hormone-fed beef contains more oestrogen than that from cattle fed conventionally, but this heightened level is still less than the amount per gram of the hormone found in shop-bought tofu or eggs. Artificial chemical-fuelled meat was studied for 50 years before it was widely adopted in the US and has been arguably shown to pose no risk to humans. These studies lacked the statistical power to conclusively rule out a link with certain cancers.
Unlike their trans-Atlantic cousins, the UK, as part of the EU, takes a precautionary approach to regulation, opting to err on the side of caution rather than wait for conclusive evidence of safety or acceptable risk. Ultimately the goal of using supplements is to bolster growth, meaning more beef in less time. Critics argue this prioritises efficiency and profit over quality, sustainability and safety.
Another common method of maximising livestock growth is the use of antibiotics. Farmers often encourage their cattle to pop pills as a preventative measure rather than as a treatment for illness.
Antibiotics themselves are not dangerous, they reduce infection rates and kill deadly microbes. However, each time an antibiotic is used, the risk of bacteria becoming immune to its bug-busting capabilities is increased. Many of the medicines used to treat animals during food production are the same drugs used to tackle common human diseases. The World Health Organisation is now urging national governments to ban unnecessary use of antibiotics as a necessary means of preventing a pandemic.
The EU has taken heed of this advice and by 2022 will have enacted the strictest laws on livestock-related antibiotic use in the world. Tens of thousands of people living in the US die each year from illnesses that are spread to humans from animals, and as a result, US regulators have made their own bold move, creating a new framework to limit the level of livestock-related drug dosing. Unfortunately, it seems to have been ineffective, as a recent survey shows that crucial medications are still being used on American farms due to a legal loophole, with over 80% of the antibiotics used in the US being on animals.
With growing divergence between the two sides of the Atlantic, the UK will have to pick an approach that will influence both what it exports and imports and where it comes from, for the immediate future at least.
It’s not just meat products that have had to bear the brunt of industrial agriculture. Efficiency-boosting techniques are found throughout the farming process of most fruit and vegetables. Most notably, crops and the fields in which they grow are sprayed with pesticides.
While these protective poisons kill insect species that can damage plants as they grow, they often have unwanted side effects, such as dangerously polluting local water sources. There is also evidence that some common pesticides can cause bee colonies to collapse, with this loss of key pollinators having significant effects on local ecosystems. As a result, the EU has banned the use of atrazine and neonicotinoids while they remain legal in the US.
American regulation starts from the top; in fact, the White House is even able to overrule existing scientific evidence to implement or remove barriers. For example, the Trump administration rescinded a ban on the use of chlorpyrifos, a potent chemical strongly linked to childhood brain damage. Individual states can set their own precedents and as a result, California has prohibited the use of the potentially dangerous compound.
As is often the case, powerful corporate lobbying is thought to have played a role in the legislative change — chlorpyrifos manufacturer DowDuPont donated to the Trump campaign during the 2016 election. Lobbying is a key driver of trade regulations around the world, the EU included, and as the UK begins to redefine its own food standards, it’s important to put the safety concerns of people, other animals and the environment above the commercial interests of lobbyists.
From a loaf of sliced bread to a prepacked ready meal, most of the food we buy has been processed before it gets to us. Industrial cooking is messy, and sometimes things go slightly wrong. In the US, the Food and Drug Agency (FDA) sets out exactly how badly things can go wrong in the ominously named Defect Levels Handbook. This infamous handbook essentially lays out the acceptable levels of impurities, with rat faeces, insect heads and fruit mould permitted in specified foods.
While in the UK there are no acceptable amounts of foreign matter in food products, American cocoa beans can contain up to 10mg of poop per kilo, four rodent hairs in each pack of noodles or 20 insect parts per kilo of frozen berries, as these levels are deemed to be safe. There is significant concern that the US imports permitted by a post-Brexit trade deal could be riddled with ‘acceptable defects’, lowering the stringent food safety standards enjoyed by consumers.
Recent historical precedents have shown that public engagement and outcry can massively alter demand and regulation. This was clearly demonstrated by the banning of so-called e-number additives in the UK and ongoing European resistance to buying genetically modified (GM) products.
The UK food import market is the third largest in the world, and as new trade partners clamour to get access to this potentially lucrative income source, policymakers and consumers will be faced with choices. As a recent report by the Food Research Collaboration urged, “the UK Government should ensure either that food standards remain fully aligned with EU standards, or that we adopt higher standards”. To do this, consumers “should strongly resist moves to weaken current levels of protection” as part of future trade deals.
What’s wrong with American chicken? We’re about to find out.