As European Union (EU) and US officials began their sixth round of negotiations on an ambitious EU-US free trade agreement in Brussels this week, American poultry practices threatened to become a lightning rod for European public unease about US food standards.
Speaking to negotiators at a stakeholder forum hosted by the European Commission on Wednesday, consumer groups warned that under the planned Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), chlorine-washed American chicken could flood European markets and damage public health.
The practice of washing chicken in chlorine baths to kill germs is common in the US but not permitted in the EU, where chickens are treated with antibiotics to prevent infection along the food chain.
Camille Perrin, senior food policy officer at the European consumer organisation Bureau Européen des Unions de Consommateurs (BEUC), told US and EU official negotiators at the meeting that European consumers were alarmed by the practice. She said allowing chlorine-bathed chicken to be sold in the EU could open the door to lower hygiene standards on farms and in slaughterhouses.
"In the UK, Denmark and Finland, studies found that consumers acceptance of meat treated with chemicals is very low," she noted. "It is vital that European consumers’ preference for meat that has not been washed with chemicals is recognised and protected especially because this practice would threaten the farm-to-fork approach to food safety and also public health."
But US officials rejected these arguments. In a question and answer session, the US chief negotiator on TTIP, Daniel Mullaney, argued that chlorine-washed chicken offered consumers a safe alternative. "Should consumers not be allowed maximum choice if the food is proven to be safe?" he asked.
Opponents countered that American food safety practices amount to an "end-of-tube" approach, which fails to match the EU’s stringent requirements for safely combating infection "from farm to fork".
Europe’s chicken farmers, who have invested in costly food safety processes that comply with EU standards, said that chemically treated chicken was incompatible with European food culture: "The approach to food safety in the European Union, producing natural products with high hygiene standards throughout the entire process, rather than a chemical treatment at the end of the process, is deeply anchored in our European food culture and therefore we strongly support it," said a spokeswoman for German Poultry Association (Zentralverband der Deutschen Geflügelwirtschaft).
Criticism of chlorine washing was a common theme at the forum in Brussels, which brought together consumer, agricultural and industrial groups with negotiators. But a European Commission trade policy spokesperson said: "The way we regulate food safety will not change as a result of TTIP. The food safety will be regulated exactly the same way as it is done now, based on scientific advices and opinion of the independent European Food Safety Authority.The EU will deal with any current application as regards anti-microbial treatments on the basis of EU law."
The European Commission originally aimed to finish negotiations on TTIP by the end of 2014, but opposition from industry, consumer and environmental organisations has delayed progress.
Industry representatives suggested that many of the thorniest questions would be removed from the agenda and negotiated separately once a pact covering the main areas has been agreed.