Chlorinated chicken: ‘Dangerous’ practices at major US plant stoke fears of contaminated food in UK after Brexit

Channel 4’s ‘Dispatches’ exposes danger of cross-contamination with deadly bacteria – because of poor standards outlawed by EU membership

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Monday 03 June 2019 19:58 BST
Dispatches programme on chlorinated chicken in the US

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An investigation has revealed the risk of food poisoning because of “dangerous” practices at a US chicken factory, ahead of trade talks which could force the UK to accept the meat after Brexit.

The undercover probe by Channel 4 laid bare the danger of cross-contamination with the deadly bacteria salmonella and campylobacter, because of poor standards outlawed by the EU.

As normal in the US, the chicken is washed in chemicals – a practice banned in the UK under EU law because scientists fear it does not remove bacteria and simply masks safety failures.

Nevertheless, the US has made clear it will demand the UK accept chemical-washed poultry in any trade deal – and Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, has suggested a ban will be impossible.

The expose by the Dispatches programme – ahead of exploratory trade talks between Theresa May and Donald Trump on his state visit – uncovered:

* Piles of chicken left on conveyor belts for long periods of time, at the risk of cross contamination.

* Boxes of chicken stacked on top of each other – which could also cause cross-contamination.

* Workers touching raw chicken with bare hands – while one cleared drains with gloved hands, merely washing the gloves before going back to touching raw chicken.

* Drains blocked with chicken – while pieces of and innards lay on the floor and water leaked from machinery.

* Flooded and broken floors where “bacteria could breed”, an EU meat safety expert warned.

* A worker having three fingers amputated, after being asked to operate a machine they had not been trained to use.

Ron Spellman, the assistant secretary general of the European Food and Meat Inspectors Association, said the programme exposed “much lower standards than we’ve got in Britain and in the EU”.

Asked if they were acceptable for British shoppers, he said: “Definitely not, no. This would be a really, really big step backwards for us.”

On the accumulation of meat on conveyor belts, Mr Spellman said: “Some of that poultry will be carrying campylobacter without a doubt, and some salmonella. The more contact they have with other bits of meat, the more contamination will spread.”

And he added: “This practice of stacking the boxes up like that, with the bottom of the box on the chicken that’s underneath, makes it appear to be a comparatively innocent and harmless practice. It isn’t. It’s dangerous.”

For the programme, entitledThe Truth About Chlorinated Chicken’ recruited an undercover reporter for a job at the plant in Texas, owned by Tyson Foods, America’s biggest poultry producer.

She said: “On several occasions, I saw supervisors touching chicken with bare hands. The hygiene in the plant, it was just really kind of a shocker.”

Criticism has grown that ministers will bow to US pressure to accept chlorine-washed chicken after Brexit, in their desperation for a trade deal with Washington.

At the weekend, Woody Johnson, the US ambassador, made clear it would expect UK markets to be opened up to US agricultural products, in a trade deal already being “lined up”.

“American products would come over. You give the British people a choice. If they like it they can buy it, if they don’t want it they don’t have to buy it,” he said.

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