Americans play chicken with food hygiene rules

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American chickens, which end up on British tables, have been kept for long periods in a warm, festering soup of faeces and grime, allowing bacteria to spread from bird to bird.

Britain imports about two and a half thousand tons of chicken from America every year - the second biggest importer in the European Union - which are believed to find their way into processed meat products

A gruesome picture emerged yesterday of how the Americans treat their chickens. According to European veterinary experts, when the chickens are packed in the US for export they are embedded in ice, which quickly melts, pouring in streams, mixed with chicken blood, through special leak holes cut in boxes. The warm dirty water flows over unprotected carcasses, creating further risk of contamination. On American poultry abattoir floors much "pooling of water is observed" as well as parts of bird carcasses seen unwrapped and sticking out of boxes.

The US abattoirs depend on disinfection with chlorine, at the end of the processing, to decontaminate the carcasses. Such decontamination is banned in the European Union, and the entire American system falls well below European hygiene standards.

The findings of the European veterinary experts, who have recently inspected US poultry and meat export abattoirs, have led to EU threats of an all- out ban on the import of American chicken, and brought Europe and the US to the brink of a trade war. Yet, despite the crisis in EU-US relations, and the findings of high contamination risk, neither the European Commission in Brussels, or the Ministry of Agriculture in London, have any advice for Europe's retailers or consumers. American chicken is still not officially banned and is still on sale here.

American chickens constitute only a small per-centage of the birds eaten in Europe, but US products are widely used for cheap chicken products and are often found on sale, frozen in supermarkets.

The US has accused Europe of exaggerating the dangers in order to block the import of American meats. But one of the European team who carried out inspections, described what he had seen in the US abattoirs as "simply disgusting".

The thrust of the European findings appear to be supported by an independent report by one of America's own leading consumer health bodies, the Centre for Science in the Public Interest. It has found that 20 per cent of US broiler chickens are contaminated with salmonella before processing and the contamination increases after treatment in the US slaughter houses. American poultry slaughterhouses use methods which "increase the risk of contamination" and then relies on the consumer "to cook the problem away", says a report by the centre.

Salmonella and Campylobacter, the two bacteria found most frequently in poultry, cause 6.5 million illnesses in the US every year.

The American experts describe the US processing procedure as follows: "Chickens and turkeys are shipped in cages crowded with other birds and often arrive at the processing plant with faeces on the feathers and the skin.

"At the processing plant, the birds are hung by their feet and then stunned. From this point on they are essentially brain dead, but other physiological responses continue. The birds often defecate. Hanging birds by their feet assures that when they defecate, the contamination remains on the skin and feathers."

The dead chickens are put in a scald tank known as 'fecal soup'. In the tank contamination builds up as the water is not hot enough to kill the bacteria. Next, the birds are "defeathered" by mechanical fingers which "are not cleaned between each bird and can actually collect contamination from the dirtiest bird and redistribute it onto each new carcass."

"Removal of internal organs is also done by machines which cannot prevent intestinal contents spilling all over the cavity of the bird. This also causes cross-contamination.

"Finally birds are chilled in large vats of water called immersion chillers, a common bath where the birds bump against each other. Salmonella and Campylobacter get redistributed from one carcass onto others in the tank.

A number of leading supermarkets - including Tesco, Sainsbury's, Kwik Save and Morrison - contacted last night, said they did not use American chicken imports. However, it is believed that the majority of the chicken imported into the UK could be used in processed meat products, such as pies.