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Cheap Chicken? Chlorination is Just the Start

dead chickens

Humanosity says…Here is the UK we’ve heard a lot about chlorinated chicken but that’s not the half of it. Chicken is one of the most important food products but how we produce cheap chicken gives a disturbing insight into the global food system in the light of the much-vaunted UK/US free trade deal…

Chlorinated Chicken has grabbed the attention of the UK’s media as a weather vane to the public’s attitude towards a free trade deal with the US. However, chlorination is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to way chicken is produced. The real concern is the industrial farming method by which it is produced.

Chicken is one of the defining commodities of our food system. However, prior to the 1960s, it was considered a luxury. In the 1950s Britons ate around 1kg of chicken over the course of a whole year. Now that figure is around 25kg according to Compassion in World Farming.

They found that:

Over 70% of chickens raised for meat globally are raised in intensive industrial farming systems. This includes the majority of chickens in the UK, Europe, the US and China, as well as rapidly increasing numbers in developing countries. In the European Union, intensively farmed chickens are bred to reach their slaughter weight in less than 6 weeks. This is less than half the time it would take traditionally. Their short lives are spent in overcrowded, dimly-lit sheds with no access to the outside.


We already add chlorine to our water and EU rules allows for salad leaves to be washed in chlorinated water. However, the key difference is the concentration of chlorine used. According to the Guardian

the US allows poultry carcasses to be washed in water treated with up to 50mg of chlorine per litre. The EU allows salad leaves to be treated with chlorine washes, and in the UK they have typically been used at concentrations of up to 15-20mg per litre, although the industry has been moving away from using them in response to consumer concerns.

The WHO has published a set of limits on levels because using chlorine as a disinfectant leaves behind residues of chlorinated compounds and some of these have been found to be cancer-causing in animal tests. Whilst more tests need to be done the reason this all matters is that the arguments unleashed by the pursuit of a US free trade deal are in fact arguments over what type of agriculture do we want as consumers.

Free us from onerous EU regulation, today’s Brexiters believe, whether it be on genetically modified or gene-edited crops, on pesticide residues and agrochemical use, or on antibiotics and other veterinary drugs, and we will all benefit from cheaper food.

Is cheaper food what we really need?

Chicken is already incredibly cheap. The celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall has been campaigning to get us to accept a slightly higher price for chicken. The benefits will be to the animals themselves and the promotion of healthier farming practices and he hopes healthier eating habits.

US farming still depends heavily on the blunderbuss technology of genetic modification accompanied by an agrochemical payload that wages war on insect life and soils. Yet it is increasingly clear that nurturing more complex agro-ecological systems, combining traditional knowledge with cutting-edge science, will be vital for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting diversity.

Ever cheaper frozen chicken is likely to feed the already huge highly processed chicken market. Do consumers want ever cheaper food in fried chicken shops or do they need a method for farming that produces higher welfare and encourages a healthier diet?

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