Germany’s fear of ‘chlorine chicken’ complicates US trade talks


Ukraine produces the cheapest poultry in the world. [Shutterstock]

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel once said she wished “for nothing more than a free-trade agreement between the USA and the EU”. But, to the dismay of many in Brussels and Washington, Germans are now taking a very different view.

Europe’s biggest exporter is becoming one of the most vocal opponents of the world’s biggest trade deal. A transatlantic pact would create a market of 800 million people and allow Germany to sell more of its luxury cars, trains and chemicals in the United States, an attractive proposition for an economy that has faltered in recent months.

But in a twist that few officials expected, European concerns about the threat to food and the environment have found their strongest voice in Germany, amplified by the country’s influential Green party, as well as anger at reports of US spying.

The difficulty of selling the benefits of a deal, which could generate around €75 billion a year in economic growth for both the EU and the US, is a sign of the challenge for governments seeking to contain a growing hostility to the talks.

“We do not want this sort of agreement,” said Ska Keller, a member of the European Parliament for the Greens, who gained prominence at home during European elections in May by putting the trade deal at the centre of her campaign. “I don’t expect anything positive to come out of the negotiations,” Keller told the news agency Reuters.

Even before the latest reports of US spying in Germany, the idea that the US technique of disinfecting chicken with chlorine might be introduced in Europe has alarmed Germans and highlights their wider suspicions about an EU-US accord.

The phrase ‘Chlorhünchen’, or chlorine chicken, has entered the parlance of everyone from taxi drivers to housewives since trade negotiations began a year ago. An Internet search for the term generates thousands of results, bringing up cartoons of animals dumped in vats of chemicals and stabbed with needles.

A majority of Germans believe chlorine-washed chicken is a danger to human health despite its successful use in the US to kill bacteria, according to survey by pollster Forsa. In the EU, antibiotics are used. Brussels has stated there will be no change in policy even with a US deal.

Not just about food

Negotiators are meeting in Brussels for a sixth round of talks this week, hoping to reach an agreement sometime next year. But they are struggling to raise awareness beyond vocal labor and consumer groups who largely oppose an accord.

The EU’s trade chief, Karel De Gucht, has warned that many Europeans think the TTIP “is an extraterrestrial”. In Germany, the problem is not just about food.

Plans to allow companies to bring claims against a country if it breaches the trade treaty have created a furor in Germany, even though Berlin uses the dispute mechanism in other trade accords and is credited with having invented it in the 1950s.

German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel has said he sees the mechanism as unnecessary, as both the EU and the US have strong enough legal systems to protect investors.

The US, however, is unlikely to accept a trade agreement without the dispute mechanism. But to make matters worse, the new chairman of the European Parliament’s influential trade committee, Germany’s Bernd Lange, is strongly against it. The US ambassador to the EU, Anthony Gardner, has also expressed concern.

“I have never met Mr. Lange, but perhaps is important to explain to him the history of this mechanism,” Gardner told reporters this month. “It was indeed invented in Germany.” 

For now, EU and U.S. officials say they are on the front foot in their campaign to sell the benefits of the deal.

The EU’s De Gucht is one of the most active, visiting German universities and giving speeches to Germany’s upper house of parliament. But there no sign yet that Germany is convinced.

“There’s a delusion that somehow Germany has the same attitude to free trade that Britain does, and that is just not true,” said Phillippe Legrain, a former advisor to the president of the European Commission.

“Being a big exporter doesn’t mean that you like opening your markets,” he said.

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is a trade agreement that is presently being negotiated between the European Union and the United States.

If successful, the deal would cover more than 40% of global GDP and account for large shares of world trade and foreign direct investment.

The EU-US trade relationship is already the biggest in the world. Traded goods and services are worth €2 billion.

On top of cutting tariffs across all sectors, the EU and the US want to tackle barriers behind the customs border – such as differences in technical regulations, standards and approval procedures. These often cost unnecessary time and money for companies selling their products on both markets.

For example, when a car is approved as safe in the EU, it has to undergo a new approval procedure in the US even though the safety standards are similar.

The TTIP negotiations will also look at opening both markets for services, investment, and public procurement. They could also shape global rules on trade.

  • 14 July: New round of talks between EU and US.

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