Is chlorine-washed chicken coming to the UK?

Trump’s trade team wants to force the UK to accept poorly-produced chicken washed in chlorine as part of a post-Brexit trade deal. Here’s what you need to know.


Trump’s trade team is putting pressure on the UK government to lower environmental, hygiene and welfare standards and flood the UK with poorly-produced meat from the US.

Last month, Unearthed (Greenpeace’s investigative journalism project) revealed that a powerful US agricultural lobby group is working with allies in Congress to rip up the UK’s food hygiene standards. If their plan succeeds, this would mean a trade deal with the US that allows food that is currently forbidden, like poorly-produced American beef, pumped full of hormones so it grows quicker, and chlorine-washed chicken into the country.

Why is chlorine chicken bad?

Chicken in the US is washed in chlorine in an effort to kill illness-causing bacteria like salmonella. It’s not the chlorine-washing itself that’s the problem, but what it’s supposed to be hiding: detritus and bacteria that come from poor industrial farming practices. 

These terrible animal welfare standards in overcrowded farms mean an inevitable spread of bacteria, which is why the chlorine is deemed necessary. And there’s little evidence that it even works – chlorine just makes bacteria harder to detect. American food producers can even get away with having small quantities of “rodent filth” and “insect fragments” in their products. 

If allowed into the country, UK farmers could find themselves competing to provide cheaper industrially-produced meat in a race to the bottom. In May, a majority of MPs rejected amendments to the agriculture bill that would have protected UK farmers from lower-standard imports.

Why is this happening now?

EU environmental and food hygiene standards are generally far stricter than those in the US. As a former member of the EU, the UK has kept these higher standards. But this is now in jeopardy, as ministers race to secure a US–UK trade agreement before the November elections. 

In the years since the Brexit vote, the UK government has failed to reassure farmers and the public that it’s committed to maintaining these standards. In 2019, Unearthed found that Liz Truss’ trade department was pushing to weaken food standards in an effort to get a deal with Trump. And in 2018 our investigative journalists went undercover to show how an influential UK think tank offered ministerial access to American agribusiness lobbyists.

What happens next?

The government has repeatedly promised – including in their 2019 general election manifesto – that the UK will maintain high environmental and animal welfare protections in all future trade deals after Brexit.

So far, they’ve not guaranteed this promise, because lawmakers are now refusing to put it into law in the agriculture bill. This means that the pressure trade negotiators are facing to get a deal in time could see the UK government weaken our current standards. 

If these lower standards were used for UK-produced food, experts believe it could impact our ability to secure a trade deal with the EU.

At the moment, the agriculture bill is working its way through parliament. This is a chance for Boris Johnson and his government to show they’ll put the environment, animal welfare and UK farmers first by supporting an amendment to ban lowering food standards.

What's next?