LONDON — In this post-Brexit, mid-pandemic moment in the United Kingdom, with its economy battered by recession and the royal family in mourning and turmoil, it is hard to find a topic that unites this fractious nation. But U.S. chickens — yes, the lowly, clucking farm animal, consumed daily by the millions in all 50 states — have done it.
Everybody hates them.
The odd thing is that U.S. chicken is not sold anywhere in Britain, and if people here get their way, it never will be.
What precisely have U.S. chickens done to so thoroughly appall the British, even though few of the latter have ever sampled the former?
The short answer is that some U.S. chicken carcasses are washed in chlorine, to eliminate potentially harmful pathogens. Americans for years have been devouring these birds without any fuss, but in Britain, U.S. chickens are now attached to the word “chlorinated” the way warning labels are attached to cigarettes — which is to say, always. U.S. chickens have been denounced by editorialists, academics, politicians, farmers and a wide variety of activists. In October, a group of protesters dressed in chicken costumes milled around Parliament.
forward an article that quoted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which stated that one in six American suffered from a food-borne illness every year. In the United Kingdom, that figure as tallied by the Food Standards Agency, the article continued, is one in 60.
The chlorine dunk isn’t just kind of gross, in other words. It’s ineffective.
Nonsense, says Tom Super, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, which represents the companies that process about 95 percent of U.S. chicken. He pointed out that the United Kingdom’s Food Standards Agency’s own website offers a caution about comparing food-borne illness numbers between countries.
the site reads. “This makes any comparison and interpretation of differences challenging.”
Mr. Super notes that only 5 percent of chickens are now washed with chlorine because the industry has moved on to a better cleaner. (Peracetic acid, if you’re curious.) But focusing on how chickens are washed misses the safety and care built into the U.S. system, he added, starting with how eggs are hatched and chickens are fed. Lower hygiene standards? A total canard, an excuse for protectionism, he says, and one that glosses over the findings of the European Food Safety Authority, which in 2008 could find no evidence that chlorinated chickens are unsafe.