A Game of Chickens

The vote on Brexit is strangely dependent on the American poultry business.

Chicken meat in a walk-in refrigerator
Francois Lenoir / Reuters

LONDON—The United Kingdom is scheduled to exit the European Union on March 29. The clock is ticking to reach an agreement on a transition. Without a transition agreement, the U.K. will abruptly be ejected overnight from the European Union Customs Union and single market—a shock that could send not only Britain but also perhaps the whole EU crashing into recession.

Yet the first attempt to enact a transition law was rejected by the British Parliament on January 15. Sometime in mid-March, the British Parliament will vote again on a slightly amended version of the transition. A lot depends on this vote, for the U.K. and the world. And the deciding factor might turn out to be an unexpected hero: the American chicken.

Chicken in the United States has become incredibly cheap, averaging 79 percent of chicken prices in the United Kingdom. The industrial methods that produce cheap chicken culminate in a bath of microbe-slaughtering fluids before packaging for sale to the consumer. When Parliament votes on May’s deal later in the month, that vote will, to a surprising degree, also express a verdict on this American chicken cleanse.

The European Union banned antimicrobial baths in 1997. That ban created a protected market for European and British chicken producers. British people eat some 1.3 billion chickens a year, about 870 million of them British-raised and 400 million from elsewhere in the European Union, but virtually none from the United States.

The United States wants to claim this business for itself as part of any future trade deal. British producers will either have to adapt to American methods or go out of business.

The EU claims that antimicrobial baths enable unsanitary practices up the production chain. Ban the baths, and chicken processors must follow healthier practices. The United States retorts that chemically disinfected chicken is perfectly healthy. Americans eat a lot of it with no documented negative effects.

We don’t have to arbitrate here who is right. But over two decades of arguing about “chlorinated chicken”—as its detractors call it—European publics have absorbed their leaders’ condemnations of U.S. factory-farming practices. In this respect, at least, the British are ultra-European. About 70 percent of British people oppose the chemical disinfection of chicken, more than half of them adamantly so. More than 80 percent would reject a trade deal with the United States if it required changes in food-safety standards.

As the British Parliament was weighing its revote on Theresa May’s transition agreement, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) published its concepts for a U.S.-U.K. trade deal. High atop the wish list: elimination of nontariff barriers to U.S. agriculture, such as the EU chicken rules, as well as EU bans on hormones in milk and beef, and EU rules against genetically modified crops.

On March 1, Woody Johnson, the U.S. ambassador to the U.K., published an op-ed in The Telegraph lamenting “smear tactics” against U.S. food. “Inflammatory and misleading terms like ‘chlorinated chicken’ and ‘hormone beef’ are deployed to cast American farming in the worst possible light,” he argued. Johnson derided the EU’s approach as better suited to a “museum of agriculture.”

“Always keep a-hold of Nurse, for fear of finding something worse,” wrote Hilaire Belloc in his Cautionary Tales for Children. In that case, the “something worse” was a lion that ate a British child. A century later, the “something worse” is the possibility that British children might have to eat American chicken.

Neither the USTR nor Johnson was being intentionally provocative. They were restating long-held American views about chicken. But their timing administered an unintended jolt, perhaps just when Prime Minister May needed it most. Vote yes on her transition plan to keep the U.K. inside the EU trading system for many years to come—or face the risk of chlorinated chicken by Easter.

Rational or not, British parliamentarians know the answer their constituents expect to hear. If the May transition agreement passes mid-March, she can, in great part, credit the Trump administration, Johnson—and cheap American chicken.