Europeans have long been suspicious of U.S. poultry. American birds, they complain, are bathed in a chlorine solution before they're brought to market. That's why EU leaders are currently fighting to uphold a ban on imports of what is popularly referred to as "Chicken in Chlorine Sauce."
"There will be no imports of chlorinated chicken from the U.S.," Angela Merkel insisted during the European elections earlier this year. "I have prevented those imports for years, and I will continue to prevent them. No question."
This isn't some kind of snobbish disdain for all-American poultry. Chlorinated chicken is real. Many American farmers treat plucked, eviscerated birds with chemicals, including chlorine, to "help meet targeted salmonella and campylobacter reductions," according to the Department of Agriculture. In Europe, meanwhile, chicken producers tend to decontaminate birds using only cold air.
"Here in Europe we say chlorine is very bad for people, so let's forbid it," says Frans Fransen, owner of IFT Poultry, a poultry industry consultancy based in Belgium. He adds: "Chlorine removes the superficial bacteria, not what's hidden in the meat." That's why all chicken, even chemically treated chicken, must be thoroughly cooked.
The fear of chlorinated chicken from the U.S. is particularly widespread in Germany. "The phrase Chlorhuehnchen, or chlorine chicken, has entered the parlance of everyone from taxi drivers to housewives since [global] trade negotiations began a year ago," Reuters found. "An Internet search for the term generates thousands of results, bringing up cartoons of animals dumped in vats of chemicals and stabbed with needles."
Europe's concerns aren't totally unfounded. Last year Washington Post reporter Kimberly Kindy published a disturbing look at the possible human toll of heavy chemical use at U.S. poultry factories:
"In interviews, more than two dozen USDA inspectors and poultry industry employees described a range of ailments they attributed to chemical exposure, including asthma and other severe respiratory problems, burns, rashes, irritated eyes, and sinus ulcers and other sinus problems."
It has also been argued that chemical cleansing encourages faster, sloppier practices on the slaughter line. Citing government sources and documents, Kindy writes: "To keep speeds up, the new regulations 'would allow visibly contaminated poultry carcasses to remain online for treatment'—rather than being discarded or removed for off-line cleaning, as is now common practice," she writes. "The proposed rules say 'all carcasses' on the line would be treated with antimicrobial chemicals 'whether they are contaminated or not.'"
It should be noted that U.S. organic chicken is not washed in chlorine. And the USDA notes that all "antimicrobial agents" used by the poultry industry have been deemed safe and suitable by the Food and Drug Administration.
Fransen acknowledges that no direct link has been established between chlorine chicken consumption and illness. "There's no proven factor where you can say O.K., you've eaten chlorinated chicken, now you got cancer," he says. "Nobody has ever proven it, but they know it's not good for people. It's common sense."
Poultry is America's sixth-most-important agricultural export, with shipments worth more than $4.7 billion sent to nearly 100 countries last year, according to the National Chicken Council. That makes the U.S. the world's second-biggest chicken exporter, behind Brazil.
With Russia's recent decision to ban several food and agriculture products from the Western nations, including poultry, Europe may face more pressure to lift its ban on American-made chlorine chicken and hormone-infused beef. "The Americans will have to dump their product somewhere," says Fransen. "I think it will not take long before we see the American poultry here."