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EU food safety rules: Do as I say, not as I do

The timing, if not the chicken, is delicious. On the same day (and in the same newspaper!) that German farms minister Horst Seehofer called for the EU to export its standards of environmental, animal welfare and food production regulations to China and India, it has been revealed that member state governments have been covering up the flouting of EU’s rules on cleaning chicken meat with chlorine solution. These rules have kept out all poultry imports from the US for the past eleven years.

According to the Financial Times,

Mr Seehofer said the EU had very high standards on “the environment, on water, on health and social issues, that are also expensive for our farmers to implement. The EU should move step-by-step to ensure that third-world countries also have to meet these standards if they want to export to the EU.” He said this idea was broadly in line with France’s proposals on a “European preference” in farm products to reflect higher EU standards.

This shows Seehofer is dancing an elegant pas-de-deux with Michel Barnier, who last week raised the idea of a new era of community preference, based on (higher) EU standards of farming and food production. The argument that the EU’s standards are more about trade protection than consumer protection is has been raging for a long while, not least on this very blog. So it was very interesting to read today’s revelations by the Financial Times that European poultry producers are using a chlorine-washing process on EU chicken meat bound for the export market. According to the FT’s Brussels correspondent Andrew Bounds:

Internal documents from the European Commission show that chlorine washing is permitted for poultry being exported from the EU. “The French use [chlorine washing] for exports to Saudi Arabia. This fact has been concealed. Not once has it been mentioned in all the Commission meetings on this subject,” said a senior Commission official pushing to change the rules. “This is all about protecting vested interests.”

If the EU is serious about embarking on a new era of community preference based on EU standards of environmental, animal welfare and food production regulations, this kind of hypocrisy is going to make things very sticky, particularly when trading partners begin taking such cases for dispute settlement at the WTO. European Food Safety Agency has found that chlorine washing “does not indicate a safety concern”, which would suggest the EU is in breach of its obligations at the EU. Nevertheless, at least two Commissioners are thought to be concerned about the environmental and health implications of chlorine washing and a majority of member state farm ministers support continuing the import ban on chlorine-washed poultry. I’ve written previously on the importance of the ‘yuck factor’ in making decisions about food production, by which I mean paying attention to what non-expert consumers concerns about novel food production techniques, even if the ‘experts’ declare the techniques ‘safe’. Remember, the experts once said that feeding sheep and cattle remains to cattle was ‘safe’. And we all know where that ended.

Personally, having worked at the Ministry of Agriculture in the UK for three years, and having read many of the reports about the inner workings of the poultry sector, I give almost all chicken, whether washed in chlorine or not, a very wide berth. If you’re interested in reading more about how most chickens reach your plate, an excellent book is Planet Chicken, by Hattie Ellis, who just happens to be the sister of Alex Ellis, UK Ambassador to Portugal and former trade policy adviser to Commission President Barroso… It’s a small world!

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