This is a strange topic for a blog, I hear you say. But I am so aware that many people automatically think chlorine washed chicken must be bad. After all, Donald Trump wants it, so it has to be. But as a medic I want to speak to fact, and challenge views. And, at the outset, let me be clear that I am not a Trump supporter.
It has long been realised that poultry is a potent source of pathogens such as E coli, Salmonella and Campylobacter. As a doctor I have treated many patients following their barbecues, chicken sandwiches and curries. Campylobacter is the most common, resulting in severe abdominal cramps, sometimes bloody diarrhoea, and occasionally death.
In the UK we don’t manage the risk very well. Campylobacter is still number one when it comes to bacterial food poisoning in the UK. It is reported by Public Health England that in 2016 there were just short of 60,000 laboratory confirmed cases. More troubling is that the milder cases don’t get reported, and the Food Standards Agency estimates that the true caseload may be over 250,000.
Worse still, on average there are 110 deaths annually – which works out at about one death every three days. And these numbers have only dropped slightly over the last 10 years.
Public Health England, which issues annual audits on the problem, reported that in 2016-17 54% of chicken meat on sale was infected by Campylobacter. The Food Standards Agency believed the figure to be much higher, stating 73% of raw retail chickens were contaminated with Campylobacter. In real terms that means somewhere between 320 million to 460 million infected chickens a year are handled in our homes.
More worrying, according to the British Poultry Association, Campylobacter is still found on the outer packaging of 7% of raw chicken. This means that almost 9 million contaminated packages of chicken are sold in the UK every year, and these packages sit in our fridges alongside other foods.
It is a fact that washing with chlorine solution reduces the risk. It is widely accepted to be effective in limiting pathogens. That is why chlorine is in all swimming pools from which we do not ban our children. It is not a harmful product. So why not use it to wash chicken?
The issue is that the EU does not allow producers to wash meat with any substance other than water unless the substance is explicitly approved by the European Commission (EC Regulation 853/2004). And chlorine solution is not approved. I am guessing the reason is that the EU wants to have high standards of food production, and not to rely on any chemical treatments which might cause producers to lower their standards. And on that count it does better than the USA.
The problem of Campylobacter is driven by the mass production and mass transportation of chickens. And this happens in every country. Many factory-grown chickens gain more than 50g in weight every day. However, their immune systems, organs and legs cannot keep up, so they suffer a range of physical problems as a result.
And here, the maximum amount of time live birds can be transported is 12 hours. In the US, it is double that time. Cramped, hot, and maltreated, the chickens become susceptible both to contracting and spreading infection.
Quite apart from the Campylobacter risk to humans, there are clearly significant animal welfare issues. But given the scale of the problem, maybe the industry needs a comprehensive review.
But personally, post Brexit, if given the choice, I am more than happy to have my chicken chlorine washed.