In the U.S., most poultry that comes from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) is washed in a strong chlorine or other antimicrobial solution as a way to kill pathogens.1 The chlorine rinses or sprays are intended to act as antimicrobials that reduce Salmonella and other common causes of foodborne illness.
The EU, however, does not use chlorine washes on its chicken and wants no part of America’s “chlorinated chicken” either — it has banned U.S. chicken imports since 1997 due to the practice of chlorine washing. The concern isn’t necessarily due to the chlorine wash itself, but to the fact that it may allow for poor sanitation and dirty poultry to enter the food supply.
“The real fear is that heavily soiled birds may not be sufficiently disinfected, and that relying on chlorine washing could lead to poorer hygiene standards overall,” wrote food safety expert Simon Dawson of Cardiff Metropolitan University.
However, the U.K.’s plan to exit from the EU has opened up the issue for debate, as the countries will have the option to reconsider their current laws, including whether or not to accept “chlorine chicken” from the U.S.
US May Pay to Influence British Media Over Chicken
The U.S. government offered to pay up to $93,257 (£75,000) for an organization to gather up prominent British journalists and take them on tours of U.S. chicken farms. The goal is to create a favorable spin on the U.S. chicken industry as a whole, including the practice of chlorine washing. In a tender (a British term for a contract bid) seen by BuzzFeed News, it’s stated that the purpose of the press tour is to alleviate misconceptions about U.S. farming:2
“The misconceptions include animal welfare standards, GMOs and labeling, and the use of antibiotics in livestock production … Media stories about ‘industrial scale’ U.S. agriculture, usually focused on so-called ‘chlorinated chickens’, are negative, misleading, and often inaccurate.
… Participants will explore small, medium, and large farms representing various certification standards (organic, natural, conventional), research institutions supporting science-based agricultural practices, government agencies that focus on ensuring food is nutritious and safe, and other relevant institutions connected to U.S. farming.
… The locations should be carefully chosen to be geographically and culturally diverse and reflect the breadth of choice the U.S. consumer has when making food decisions.”
The tender also cited a British survey that found “only 1% of British consumers would buy American meat over British meat.”3 As it stands, the EU allows only water to decontaminate meat, which means imports of chlorine-washed chicken aren’t allowed. The ban was put in place based on precautionary measures, according to Dawson, who wrote:4
“When the ban was introduced, officials were keen that food manufacturers should focus on overall hygiene rather than relying on a single chemical decontamination step to eliminate microorganisms. It was also believed that the chemical decontamination step could encourage antibiotic resistance.”
CAFO Chicken Softens Up the World
Sir Ian Boyd, chief scientific adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), gave the green light to chlorinated chicken in an interview with Sky News, stating there were no health concerns from eating such meat:5
"From a health perspective there really isn't a problem with chlorinated chicken. The issue is about production processes and animal welfare, and that is a values-based choice that people need to make. My view is that we need to be allowed to make that choice.”
A briefing from the Centre for Food Policy called Boyd’s statement misleading. One of the briefing’s co-authors, Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, stated, “For the chief scientist at Defra to say what he did is not accidental.”6
“Professor Boyd’s statement may be an early sign that Westminster is trying to soften up the public for lower-standard food imports from the U.S.,” he added. “They are very keen to have a ‘trophy’ trade deal post-Brexit and the lowering of U.K. food safety and animal welfare standards is at stake. We cannot accept what is sure to lead to an unprecedented and radical decline in food quality standards.”7
Chlorine Washes May Not Remove Bacteria
Research published in mBio raised serious concerns over the use of chlorine washing, revealing that it may not remove bacteria as expected.8 The study involved spinach contaminated with listeria and salmonella, which was subjected to chlorine washing.
After the treatment, the bacteria were not killed but rather entered a “viable but non-culturable state (VBNC),” meaning they could still cause food poisoning but couldn’t be picked up by standard testing. “These data show that VBNC foodborne pathogens can both be generated and avoid detection by industrial practices while potentially retaining the ability to cause disease,” the study noted.9
Further, in a compliance guidelines released by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), it’s explained that chlorine rinses and sprays have the potential to make contamination worse instead of better, depending on the force of the water pressure used and the direction of the spray:
“When applying water rinses and sprays, establishments should consider the water pressure applied. Some studies have found that elevated spray pressure may force bacteria into muscle or skin rather than washing it off.
… Rinses or sprays should be designed, installed, and calibrated to remove incidental contamination. When not properly designed or implemented, rinses or sprays may not effectively remove contamination and may even spread contamination from one part of the carcasses to another part or even to adjacent carcasses.”
Aside from the notion that chlorine washes are simply a way to perpetuate unsanitary and inhumane conditions on poultry farms, the use of chlorine washes, and chilling poultry in chlorinated water, can lead to residual disinfection byproducts (DBPs) in the poultry.
DBPs are highly toxic and can be carcinogenic. While studies suggest poultry chilled in chlorinated water likely contributes only 0.3% to 1% of daily exposure to DBPs,10 it’s still a contaminant you’re better off avoiding.
Rates of Food Poisoning Higher in US
The British have a right to be concerned about opening their refrigerators to U.S. food, considering an analysis by Sustain revealed rates of foodborne illness in the U.S. are significantly higher than in the U.K. They found that, annually, 14.7% of the U.S. population suffers from foodborne illness, compared to 1.5% in the U.K.11
Kath Dalmeny, chief executive of Sustain, said in a news release, “Our analysis shows that if we accept imported meat without robust standards, we may also import increased food poisoning and possibly even deaths. The U.S. is demanding we drop our food standards for trade, but our research shows cheap U.S. meat will come at a cost to our health and economy."12
Indeed, chicken is easily one of the most contaminated foods in the U.S. and also has a weak nutritional profile compared to other protein sources, including pasture-raised chicken.
One study by the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) found that chicken samples gathered at the end of production after having been cut into parts, as you would purchase in the grocery store, had an astonishing positive rate of 26.2% contamination with salmonella.13 Many people are not aware that chicken is responsible for an alarming number of cases of foodborne illness every year.
According to U.S. CDC statistics, there were 5,760 reported foodborne outbreaks between 2009 and 2015, resulting in 100,939 illnesses, 5,699 hospitalizations and 145 deaths.14 Of these, chicken was responsible for the most outbreak-associated illnesses — 3,114 illnesses in total (12%).
Salmonella contamination is of particular concern, as data suggests multidrug-resistant salmonella has become particularly prevalent. And raw chicken has become a notorious carrier of salmonella, campylobacter, clostridium perfringens and listeria bacteria.15 Even a significant number of urinary tract infections may be caused by contaminated chicken.16
Inspection Standards Not Being Met
A June 2018 FSIS report found that the extent of salmonella contamination in U.S. chicken parts is largely unknown because 35% of large chicken-slaughter facilities in the U.S. are not meeting FSIS inspection standards.17
Perhaps in response, in November 2018 FSIS for the first time publically published chicken producers and their rankings on salmonella safety standards, which are updated each week as new samples are tested.
The rankings range from category 1 to 3. Category 1 describes facilities that had less than 50% of the maximum allowable salmonella during the testing window. Category 2 describes facilities that had more than 50% (but still within the maximum allowed), while category 3 is the worst — facilities that exceeded the maximum level of salmonella.18
If you look at the FSIS rankings,19 what you’ll notice is the frequency of category 2 and 3 on the list. A category 3 ranking isn’t grounds for immediate suspension, either. Instead, FSIS notifies facilities if they don’t meet standards and at that point decides whether further action is needed.
Don’t Buy Raw CAFO Chicken
As recently as the 1920s, chickens were raised primarily for their eggs — not their meat. Back then, chicken meat was expensive, not considered very tasty and only available seasonally, as chickens were typically slaughtered in the fall after they were no longer needed for laying eggs.
Unfortunately, it's virtually impossible to mass-produce clean, safe, optimally nutritious foods at rock-bottom prices, chicken included, which is why most people are better off avoiding CAFO chicken — whether it came from the U.S. or elsewhere. If you can’t imagine giving up chicken, finding a local grass fed farmer raising chickens on pasture is the safest, and healthiest, route to go.
There are farmers using poultry-centered regenerative agriculture systems, in which tall grasses and trees protect the birds from predators instead of cages — in addition to optimizing soil temperature and moisture content, extracting excess nutrients that the chickens deposit, bringing up valuable minerals from below the soil surface and being a high-value perennial crop.
It’s the opposite of CAFOs — regenerating the land instead of destroying it, raising chickens humanely instead of cruelly and producing nutritionally superior, safe food. You might even consider raising your own backyard chickens. You can also try leaving all CAFO chicken at the store and opting for another chicken-produced food instead: eggs, particularly organic pastured varieties.
While chicken is advertised as a healthy source of protein, due to contamination concerns, stick with only non-CAFO pastured chicken or eggs. Whole eggs are an excellent source of protein, healthy fats (omega-3) and antioxidants, including choline, along with vitamins A, D, E and K.
Pastured eggs can provide you with much of the nutrition that CAFO chickens cannot, without the risks of contamination (and no chlorine washing required).