Outrage at plans to lift ‘chlorine chicken’ ban

Members of Parliament from all political horizons have reacted with fury to a Commission proposal yesterday (28 May) to re-allow imports of poultry rinsed with chemicals, stemming mainly from the United States.

Concretely, the Commission wants to allow businesses to use four currently banned anti-microbal substances to decontaminate poultry carcasses. 

The EU executive says the substances have been cleared by the European Food Safety Agency and carcasses will in any case have to be rinsed with potable water after treatment, thereby removing any possible residues on the final product. 

But MEPs, meeting in Parliament’s Environment Committee, were incensed by the decision, which they say contradicts Community food production standards. “The chlorination of chicken intended for human consumption is not acceptable for the EU […] Such food production methods are at variance with the relevant Community standards, and threatening to the EU’s entire set of food production standards and rules,” states an EP press release. 

MEPs will however not have a say on the matter, as it will be decided by national technical experts in the Standing Committee on Food Chain and Animal Health (SCoFCAH), according to the so-called “comitology procedure”. 

If approved, the proposal would effectively lift an 11-year ban on US poultry, which are generally treated with these processes. 

The US has been pushing for the ban to be lifted for years but to no avail. However, the issue was recently pinpointed as a top priority in the new “Transatlantic Economic Council” process, which aims to remove remaining regulatory obstacles hampering trade and investment between the two economic giants. 

At the Council’s last meeting, on 13 May, EU Enterprise Commissioner Günter Verheugen reportedly gave assurances to US Special Envoy to the EU Boyden Gray that the poultry problem would be “fixed” before the EU-US summit in Ljubljana in June. 

However, whether the EU executive will succeed in its initiative remains far from clear. France is leading the opposition to the plans, saying the move would frustrate efforts to reduce bacterial infection rates, such as salmonella, in Europe. 

But many other European governments are fiercely opposed to any form of compromise on food safety standards, which in the EU are among the highest in the world. 

And, while French initiatives to adapt international trade rules to allow countries more leeway to block food imports based on health and food safety concerns are often thrown out as protectionism by other countries, even the most pro-free-trade EU countries like Sweden are starting to speak out in favour of such a scheme. 

Positions

"All these substances have undergone a scientific evaluation by EFSA on their possible direct effects on consumers and all have received a favourable opinion in this regard," stressed the Commission in its press release. 

But French Socialist MEP Anne Ferreira said lifting the ban would be "totally absurd". 

She was supported by John Bowis (EPP-ED, UK), who said it would be "outrageous" and degrade EU citizens to the status of "human guinea pigs". 

Belgian Green MEP Bart Staes said the results of the chlorination of chicken within the US have been dreadful, while the Cypriot Dimitrios Papadimoulis (GUE/NGL)  stressed that the Commission cannot ignore EU consumers. 

"We are in favour of free trade," Swedish Agriculture Minister Eskil Erlandsson told the Financial Times in a recent interview, adding: "But food must and shall be safe."

In a joint letter to the Commission, the European Consumer Organisation BEUC, the farmers' organisation Copa-Cogeca and the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) urged the Commission "not to open the EU's gates to chlorinated chicken," saying that the US had been unsuccesful in reducing the incidence of bacterial infections like salmonella despite the use of anti-microbial treatment. The EU's approach to control pathogens has been much more successful, they stress.

Greenpeace EU director Jorgo Riss accused the Commission of buckling under US pressure and surrendering the EU's high standards on food hygiene, environment and consumer protection. 

"The Barroso Commission cares more about its relations with the US administration than about its own citizens," he lamented. 

He further added his concern that the move would be used as a precedent for the Commission "to cave in on the EU's zero tolerance policy on the contamination of food and feed imports with unauthorised GMOs". 

Background

The EU has had a ban on US poultry since 1997 because American producers use a low-concentration chlorine to wash chickens before selling them – a practice not permitted in the EU. 

The issue has been pinpointed as a top priority on the agenda of the Transatlantic Economic Council external  (TEC), which was set up in April 2007 in a bid to reinvigorate EU-US economic relations. 

The aim of the TEC is to clear away technical regulations and standards that substantially raise costs for companies wishing to trade and invest across the Atlantic (EURACTIV 02/05/07). It is hoped that the removal of restrictive regulations in areas such as financial-market regulation, pharmaceuticals, patents and intellectual property law could add as much as 3.5% to both EU and US GDP. 

Timeline

  • The Standing Committee on Food Chain and Animal Health (SCoFCAH) will vote on the proposal in one of its next meetings. 

Further Reading