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Who’s afraid of Chlorinated Chicken?

Written by Catherine McBride

Discussion of Brexit and food has been grossly distorted by ill-informed scare stories, of which concerning America ‘chlorinated chicken’ is the most notorious. But there are also scares stories concerning the fate of farming in general, and of lamb production in particular. What are the facts?

I have a close American friend, now living in Ohio, who is quite finicky about what she eats but she had never heard of “Chlorinated Chicken”. When I explained to her that the chicken that she eats in the US has been sprayed with chlorinated water to kill bacteria but that chicken in the EU has not, she appeared to be more worried about my health than about hers. But listening to the BBC you could get the impression that if the UK agrees a trade deal with the US, then the UK population will be compelled to live exclusively on “Chlorinated Chicken”, and even though the US population is still alive and healthy, somehow the UK population will suffer by eating the same.

This fear is even less rational when you consider that chlorine is in the UK water supply, used to sterilise baby’s bottles and used to wash ready-to-eat bagged salad. According to DEFRA’s Drinking Water Inspectorate, chorine has been used for 100 of years and the World Health Organisation allows up to 5mg/l of chlorine in drinking water. UK water typically has about a tenth of that, but according to Defra, rates can vary.

The chlorinated chicken panic merchants also miss another important point: if the UK did sign a trade deal with the US, we would be unlikely to be allowed to live on chlorinated chicken alone. If no one else, the US beef lobby would prevent the US chicken producers from becoming the sole provider of food to the UK.

Only someone who has never been to a supermarket (unfortunately far too many politicians and BBC journalists) could seriously assume that the UK population would exclusively buy US chicken on the grounds that it is cheaper than any alternative UK product. People buy food for many reasons other than price: taste, health and convenience also play a part in that choice and chicken comes in more varieties than any other type of meat.

Regular supermarket shoppers will know that chicken is available in Organic, Free Range, Omega 3 Fed, Corn Fed, Branded, Own Brand, Regular and Budget ranges. All of these chicken varieties must have a market, if they didn’t, the supermarkets would stop providing them. And there is a big variation in the price: with skinned chicken breasts priced at £22 per kg for Organic, £16.99 per kg for Free Range, £12.26/kg for Omega 3 fed, down to £7.90 per kg for the Budget range. That is a variation of almost 180% between the cheapest and the most expensive chicken. So, if UK consumers exercise their right to choose now, why would they cease to do so when US chicken becomes yet another choice? Although US chicken prices are apparently on average 80% of UK prices if people are happily paying twice or almost three times as much for premium chicken in UK supermarkets now, why do BBC presenters assume that UK consumers will only buy the cheapest chicken from the US in the future?

But even if people do choose to buy cheaper chicken, surely that is their right. It is infuriating to hear BBC interviewers disparage US chicken as if it were practically poisonous when they earn more than 10 times the average UK wage. The average UK household is not on Nick Robinson’s massive £250,000 to £299,000 salary and they just might welcome a lower food bill.

Choice in the chicken market is not determined by an EU directive or the terms of a trade agreement: it is a consumer decision. And consumers should be free to buy what they like and spend as much or as little as they want.

The UK has higher standards for chicken farmers than the minimum EU directive requires, yet the UK is still a net importer of chicken from the EU, importing 263,000 tonnes of Poultry in 2017. But this is a fraction of the 2,023,000 tonnes of chicken that the UK consumes each year, 90% of which is locally supplied. It is hard to imagine that this local production will suddenly disappear under a US free trade agreement. EU farmers benefit from a lower currency as well as free trade, but this has not wiped out the UK chicken producers.

For the record, the US does not produce unsafe poultry products. The US uses a number of types of sprays, including chlorine dioxide and peroxyacid washes, in Pathogen Reduction Treatments. These treatments are important in protecting human health and have been shown to reduce both Salmonella and Campylobacter in chicken meat. According to OECD data, US citizens eat over twice as much poultry (48.8kg/capita) as EU citizens (24.2kq/capita) but the instances of Salmonella and Campylobacter per 100,000 population are only 15.45 and 13.45 in the US respectively, while in the EU they are much higher at 20.4 and 66.3. That is, Campylobacter is about 5 times more prevalent in the EU and Salmonella is 1.3 times higher in the EU than in the US. While EU illness rates vary by member states the UK has a lower level of Salmonella than both the US and the EU average at only 15.1 per 100,000. This is probably due to improved UK farming standards following Edwina Currie’s outburst in 1989 but unfortunately, UK rates of campylobacter have recently increased and are now higher than the EU average at 90 cases per 100,000 p.a. over the last 4 years.

Even the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) declared in 2005 that pathogen reduction treatments, used as directed, would have no safety concerns. In 2012 the EFSA concluded that chemical substances in poultry are unlikely to pose an immediate or acute health risk for consumers. The European Commission even proposed relaxing the rules on Pathogen Reduction Treatments in 2008 but all EU member states voted against this with the exception of the UK.

In 2012, the EU tried to improve poultry welfare by banning the use of very small battery hen cages providing only 550cm2  of space per bird but most EU producers have changed to using only slightly larger “enriched cages” of 750cm2 per bird rather than moving to free range or organic farming. Enforcement has also been patchy: the commission has so far had to reprimand 13 member states for noncompliance and both Italy and Greece were referred to the CJEU in 2013 for failing to enforce the cage ban. While organic chicken only makes up a tiny fraction of UK poultry farms, at least organic chicken numbers have grown by 23% between 2013 to 2017.

What about the Welsh hill farmers?

Many people opposed to the UK leaving the EU will claim that they are concerned about UK lamb farmers and the potential loss of lamb exports to the EU. But lamb farming is the minnow of UK meat production. Of the 3.9 million tonnes of Chicken, Lamb, Pork and Beef produced in the UK last year, lamb accounted for only 8%. Yes, the UK did have net exports to the EU of 77,000 tonnes of lamb in 2017 but the UK also had net imports of 1.1 million tonnes of pork, chicken and beef from the EU. The UK’s net pork imports from the EU are more than eight times the UK’s net lamb exports to the EU. It will not be chicken consumers or UK lamb producers who should be worried about the UK leaving the EU, it will be UK pork consumers who are most effected.

But help is at hand, as most shoppers know: if you go to the supermarket and there is no pork or if the lack of EU imported pork has pushed up the price of UK pork, then you can switch to UK lamb which should be plentiful, as the meat that the UK presently sells to the EU will be available for domestic consumption. This is a process called import substitution. And while many people will notice that there is a vast discrepancy between the amount of meat that we import from the EU versus the small amount that we export there, that does not mean that the amount that the UK produces must remain static. UK farmers are not operating at maximum production, meat production from cattle, pigs and poultry have all increased since 2013. And if the returns to farmers are improved with less import competition from the EU, then production is likely to continue to grow to fill the void created if EU imports are reduced. Interestingly only UK sheep meat production has not grown over the last 5 years. Sheep numbers have remained roughly steady as have UK lamb exports to the EU. This would imply that selling sheep meat into the EU is not a growing industry, so why do so many of our illiberal elite claim to be worried about the loss of EU lamb markets?

Alternatively, imports from the EU could be replaced by imports from non-EU sources and luckily non-EU countries include the world’s most efficient meat producers. If UK imports from the EU are disrupted by Brexit, it would be relatively easy for countries outside the EU to make up the difference. And before you panic that UK farmers will be driven out of business by cheaper international producers, according to The Irish Food Board’s website, French and Irish beef are both 8.6% cheaper than UK beef at the moment. But even with this price differential, the UK still supplies 80% of its domestic beef consumption, clearly demonstrating that price is not everything. UK beef is a high-quality product that UK consumers are prepared to pay more for, rather than buy cheaper Irish or French beef. Interestingly, according to the Irish Food Board, US beef is only about 3% cheaper than UK beef, so after including transport costs, it will be unlikely to undercut the local UK product. That won’t be true of Australian beef which is (according to the Irish food board) 21% cheaper than UK beef or Brazilian beef that is 46% cheaper but then, they do have further to travel.

On the subject of Australia, it is worth mentioning that although their entire economy was originally established to provide food and resources for the UK, after the UK joined the EU and abandoned the Commonwealth, Australian farmers were forced to seek other markets for their products or go out of business. At the time the Australian population was about a quarter of the size of the UK’s population and there was only so much beef that the then 13.5m population of Australia could eat. But Australia did find other markets for its beef: Japan, China, Singapore, Malaysia and even the US.  Consequently, Australia may not have enough spare beef to inundate the UK market. They could build up their herd size, but this is not going to happen overnight. However, seeking other markets has been very good for the Australian beef industry, as it will be for UK lamb producers if they chose to produce a quality product and market it effectively.

The world eats lamb: Africans, Asians, Indians, Arabians and even Americans. The US has a population of 330 million people but only produces 343,000 tonnes of lamb. That is less than a quarter of the per capita amount that the UK produces. UK farmers should consider doing a lamb for pork swap with the US. If the UK lamb farmers can’t find a market for their excess product, whether to UK domestic consumers or new export markets to the US, or the Middle East, or India, then maybe they deserve to go out of business.

The government should not be protecting UK food production from import competition.  To do so would be harmful to UK consumers if the same quality products can be supplied from elsewhere for less. UK farmers must be prepared to improve their efficiency, search for new markets or for new sources of revenue. Farming is after all, private enterprise.

Catherine McBride is a Senior Economist at the Institute of Economic Affairs. She writes here in a personal capacity

Statistical tables:

UK Chicken meat production and net imports

UK Lamb meat production and net exports

UK Pig meat production and net imports

UK Beef production and net imports

About the author

Catherine McBride