Trump’s Chlorinated-Chicken Offensive

Britain doesn’t want chlorine-washed poultry to be part of a future U.S.-U.K. trade deal. Norway offers lessons in how Washington can win over London.

Boris Johnson holds a chicken in a barn beside two farmers.
Boris Johnson inspects a chicken during his visit to rally support for his post-Brexit farming plans. (Adrian Dennis / Reuters)

American chicken isn’t too popular here in Britain, and for some politicians, it has even become a favored insult.

“We are not too keen on that chlorinated chicken,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson told Vice President Mike Pence in Downing Street last week. “We have a gigantic chlorinated chicken of our own here on the opposition benches,” he added, referring to the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

Pence laughed at his host’s joke, but it wasn’t what he wanted to hear. After all, the United States wants to sell its products—including its chicken—as part of a post-Brexit U.S.-U.K. trade deal, one that would require Britain to eschew European Union food standards that ban chlorine washing, which the United States uses in its chicken production.

Washington hasn’t given up on its efforts yet, though. Last week, BuzzFeed News revealed that Donald Trump’s administration is willing to spend as much as £75,000 ($92,000) to bring “influential” British journalists to tour U.S. farms in a play to correct “misconceptions” about the American farming industry. Though the notion that journalists can sway enough of the 72 percent of consumers polled last year who oppose allowing chlorinated chicken into the British marketplace sounds fanciful, it wouldn’t be the first time a country has managed to persuade another into accepting—or even loving—food previously thought to be dirty or unsafe. For a lesson on how, look no further than Norway.

In the 1970s, long before salmon sashimi was ubiquitous in sushi restaurants, Norway began farming salmon. Within a decade, the country was producing more farmed salmon than its own population could consume, prompting Oslo to look farther afield to different markets. During the same period, Japan, the world’s largest salmon consumer then and now, began to see its fish supplies decline as a result of overfishing of Japanese waters. When Japan began seeking foreign suppliers to meet its high consumer demand, Norway saw an opportunity.

Tokyo, however, did not. What the Norwegian government didn’t realize at the time was that eating raw salmon—the kind that Oslo hoped to sell to Japan’s financially lucrative sushi market—was taboo in the country. Though Japanese consumers were accustomed to buying salmon to grill, dry, and salt, they viewed raw salmon as too lean, parasitic, and dangerous to consume (which, in the case of wild Pacific salmon, was true). Norwegian assurances that its farmed Atlantic salmon was fatty and parasite-free fell on deaf ears.

“Everybody said, ‘No, we Japanese don’t eat salmon raw,’” Bjørn Eirik Olsen, a researcher at the Arctic University of Norway and the market researcher and strategist for the Norwegian campaign, dubbed “Project Japan,” told me. “They were completely against it.”

Olsen was hired by the Norwegian government in the 1980s to shift Japanese perceptions of raw salmon by going to the people best placed to alter public opinion in the country—its seafood-industry heads, its chefs, and Japanese media. The goal, Olsen said, wasn’t simply to convince influencers of the day that farmed raw salmon was safe, and even enjoyable, to eat. Project Japan hoped to convince the country that Norwegian salmon was completely different from anything they’d had before. It held conferences, launched supermarket campaigns, and even secured key endorsements from celebrities, including the Japanese “iron chef” Yutaka Ishinabe.

“We needed to establish a completely new name and make the Japanese see that this is not salmon the way they are used to thinking of it,” Olsen said, noting that Project Japan explicitly sought to target demand for raw fish, which was more profitable than the cooked-fish market already served by Pacific salmon. To that end, the project made the decision to market Norwegian salmon not as sake, Japanese for “salmon,” but as sāmon, “to distinguish it from [its] Pacific relative.”

In all, it took Project Japan approximately 10 years to successfully shift Japanese perceptions about raw salmon, more than doubling Norway’s salmon exports to the country and helping make salmon among the most popular raw fish consumed there today.

Though the United States could attempt to do the same in the United Kingdom, it won’t have the luxury of time. With Britain expected to leave the EU as early as October 31, trade negotiations with the U.S. could begin in as little as a year. And though some voices within the British government have begun to dispute claims that chlorine-washed chicken is exposed to subpar hygiene measures or could lead to harmful health ramifications such as salmonella poisoning, they are unlikely to make a deal between the two countries as quick or as straightforward as either side had hoped.

Moreover, unlike Norway, which was able to brand its Atlantic farmed salmon as a safer and tastier equivalent to Japan’s Pacific salmon, the United States will struggle to claim that what it’s offering British consumers is any different from the chicken already available to them (though it can claim that American chicken is a fifth cheaper). Even if a deal is reached that allows for chlorinated chicken to enter the British market, there’s no guarantee that British consumers would buy it.

“You have to be able to offer something that is a better product, that makes people’s lives better,” Olsen said. “If you just have a competing product that is equal to or even not as good as the present product, then … you have to spend lots of money into advertising. If that is the case, I’d say forget it. Spend the money on better things.”