Europeans are still obsessed with chlorine-washed chicken

Does it smell like a swimming pool in here?
Does it smell like a swimming pool in here?
Image: Reuters/Max Whittaker
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Free traders in Germany have a problem: They can’t escape the scourge of America’s chlorinated chickens.

German advocates for a sweeping free-trade deal between the European Union and the United States—the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP—released a report this week outlining the economic case for greater trade unity. Perhaps more telling, though, is the time the report spends bemoaning the fact that chlorhühnchen—chicken treated with chlorine by US farmers to kill germs—has become the symbol of the anti-TTIP political movement, which doesn’t want those fowl in German supermarkets. Even chancellor Angela Merkel, who is pro-TTIP, has vowed to let no chlorinated chicken touch German soil.

“Scientific studies of the German Institute for Risk Assessment show that the chlorine bath is an effective way to kill germs and that treated in this way chicken is no risk to the health of consumers,” wrote authors from the Cologne Institute for Economic Research. “Swimming pool water is comparable.”

Moreover, they note that just 1.2% of Germany’s imports from the US are agricultural products, while 8% of Germany’s total exports go to US—and the possibility of increasing those exports would be a boon to the country’s export-dependent economy.

Even though a majority of Germans apparently favor TTIP, and despite promises from top EU officials (paywall) that “this is not a negotiation that has as a prime aim to find … a solution for chlorine chicken,” there is still enough agitation over food that TTIP advocates must argue that labeling transparency will allow Germans to reject foods they dislike while still reaping the benefits of trade.

Around the world, fear of food has proven a potent political force, despite the lack of scientific evidence that practices like chlorine treatments or genetic modification of seeds lead to health problems. Just read this fascinating profile of Vandana Shiva, the environmental activist who has built a global anti-genetic modification movement with little scientific foundation.

That’s not to say that all is well with industrial farming: Even setting aside moral and aesthetic concerns, the environmental damaged done by overuse of fertilizers and water, and the health problems caused by the over-use of antibiotics, are real. But the German economic researchers note that US regulation is sometimes more stringent than Europe’s: Meat from American cows treated with antibiotics cannot be labelled as organic, while in the EU, beef from cows treated with antibiotics can be marketed as organic.

Still, if there’s one thing that does appear to unite US and German citizens, it is a high regard for their own food safety regulations—and little respect for those of their counterparts:

“Confidence in EU and US standards in the field of Food Safety”
“Confidence in EU and US standards in the field of Food Safety”