European Activists Say They Don't Want Any U.S. 'Chlorine Chicken' : The Salt Most U.S. poultry is bathed in a little chlorine on the way to your plate. But that treatment is banned in Europe. Now "chlorinated chickens" are a sticking point in a trans-Atlantic trade deal.

European Activists Say They Don't Want Any U.S. 'Chlorine Chicken'

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Negotiators from Europe and the U.S. are meeting in Washington trying again to reach a free-trade agreement. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP, would create the world's biggest free-trade zone, but there is a problem here. Europeans are worried about American products, including American chicken. Susanna Capelouto reports.

SUSANNA CAPELOUTO, BYLINE: Mute Schimpf doesn't want to eat American chicken.

MUTE SCHIMPF: In Europe, there is definitely a disgust about chlorinated chicken.

CAPELOUTO: Schimpf is with the group Friends of the Earth Europe. Chlorinated chicken is what she calls U.S. poultry, and she doesn't want it in Europe, where chlorine was banned in the '90s, out of fear that it could cause cancer. U.S. poultry is chilled in antimicrobial baths that can include chlorine to keep salmonella and other bacteria in check. Europeans now worry the TTIP treaty could bring them U.S. chicken. On the German equivalent of "The Daily Show" - it is called the "Heute Show" - U.S. poultry has become a running joke. In this skit, a reporter is in the White House kitchen eating a chicken nugget.



CAPELOUTO: He jokes, you can't be mad at someone who makes such a tasty chlorinated chicken. Mmm, it has a slight aroma of kiddy pool, he quips.

SCOTT RUSSELL: Most of those concerns about, you know, chemical use and those kinds of things are blown up in the media to become a problem that really doesn't exist.

CAPELOUTO: Scott Russell teaches poultry science at the University of Georgia. He says U.S. processors use about a cap-full of chlorine per gallon or 50 parts per million in a water tank that chills the chicken carcass. And that chlorine, he says, keeps chicken safe, gets washed off and is no harm to consumers. Europeans, he says, use a different approach.

RUSSELL: In Europe, their efforts at controlling foodborne illnesses is all in the live bird. For example, the grandparent stock, the breeder stock, all of those flocks of chickens are tested regularly for salmonella. If they're positive, they remove them - all of them.

CAPELOUTO: And with this method, Europeans have reduced salmonella in their chicken to just 2 percent, says Russell, but it took nearly 20 years to get there. Europeans have pushed for some of the toughest food-safety standards in the world. They want to eat fresh chicken that's air-chilled rather than dumped in chlorine water tanks, says Cees Vermeeren, with the Association of the European Poultry Industry. We spoke via Skype.

CEES VERMEEREN: The main principle of the food policy in European Union is this so-called farm-to-fork approach. And you may say that's a bit fundamentally different than what's happening outside Europe and many places.

CAPELOUTO: That strict food policy makes poultry production more expensive. A study by Wageningen University in the Netherlands shows it takes about a dollar in Europe to produce a pound of chicken. The U.S. can do it for less than 80 cents. James Sumner is president of the U.S. Poultry Export Council. He says over 120 countries accept the U.S. processing method; it's cheaper. And Europe, he says, doesn't want U.S. competition.

JAMES SUMNER: If the truth were to be known, that's the real reason they don't want us there, and chlorine is a convenient excuse.

CAPELOUTO: For activists like Mute Schimpf who are trying to sway the public to reject a big treaty that's full of legal jargon and complicated regulations, the chicken argument works.

SCHIMPF: So to simplify it, in Europe, very often the chlorinated chicken is used as a symbol to describe what European consumers and citizens don't want to have as an outcome from the trade talks.

CAPELOUTO: Besides changes in chicken production, activists are also fighting the possibility of hormone-treated beef and genetically engineered crops on the European market should TTIP succeed. The talks between the U.S. and the EU are held in secret, but any agreement needs the nod of the European parliament, which is elected by a public that worries a lot about its food supply. For NPR News, I'm Susanna Capelouto in Atlanta.

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