Analysis: How chlorinated chicken came to dominate US trade talks

27-07-2017 | |
Analysis. Photo: Steve Smailes
Analysis. Photo: Steve Smailes

Poultry is often consigned to the occasional headline in the mainstream media. And if we’re honest it isn’t often positive.

But the mere suggestion that American chicken meat, treated with a chlorine spray to reduce bacterial load, may be imported led to national newspapers leaping to the defence of British poultry farming.

Although it’s difficult to pinpoint the source, it seems the Telegraph first reported on a rift in the cabinet between Michael Gove, the environment secretary and Liam Fox, who looks after international trade. The minister with the farming portfolio objected, while the free-trader (along with foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who was born in the States) was in support.

Mr Fox was flying to the United States for initial talks about a new trading relationship after Britain leaves Europe. What was likely a throwaway comment about not having any objection to allowing American poultry access to the UK market has dominated press coverage of the entire trip.

The issue is that, broadly speaking, those who did not support our vote to leave Europe see such a move as threatening food standards here in Britain. It doesn’t help that chlorinated chicken is an unpalatable description for a foodstuff.

But regardless of voting intentions at the referendum over our membership in the EU, broadly speaking there seems to be little support for American-style chemically treated poultry here in the UK.


‘Don’t trust Fox with chickens’

So the comment from Mr Fox, first reported on Sunday, has led to a huge raft of media coverage and dominated the debate about new trading partners once we leave the EU.

There have been, literally, hundreds of stories published this week that mention chlorinated chicken. Many explaining what is, in effect, a complicated issue to get your head round.

See also: Poultry World’s view on accepting chlorinated chicken

BBC Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis was following the trade tour stateside, and asked Mr Fox directly about the growing controversy.

And the subject even came up with incoming White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci.

In addition to all the national newspapers, the topic was also aired on popular London radio station LBS, as well as Radio 4’s Today show and PM. On the former, Michael Gove explicitly ruled out accepting poultry produced to a lower standard.

The value behind that promise remains to be seen.

Farmer reaction

Here in the UK, and away from medialand, poultry farmers have understandably been nervous about the whole affair. The British Poultry Council led the defence of domestic poultry farming.

Jake Davies Freelance Journalist