Small Steps: EU to Propose Lifting Ban on US Poultry

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - If everything goes to plan today will be the day that the EU finally proposes to end an import ban on US poultry washed in chlorine, a proposal which will come in the face of fierce opposition from member states, consumers and farmers.
calendar icon 28 May 2008
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Under the proposal, poultry disinfected with chlorine and three other chemicals would be allowed in the 27-nation European Union, although under extremely strict conditions, the document, seen by AFP Tuesday, says.

The practice of disinfecting chicken meat with the solutions, which would have to be clearly labelled on packaging, would also be allowed only for an initial two years while more scientific checks are carried out.

Despite broad opposition, EU Industry Commissioner Guenter Verheugen has sought a proposal to lift the ban, in place since 1997 over health fears about a chlorine washing process common in the United States.

"The Americans don't have to buy our chickens (and) we don't have to accept theirs."
French Agriculture Minister Michel Barnier

French Agriculture Minister Michel Barnier The issue has been a source of contention in EU-US trade relations and the German commissioner has led efforts to get it lifted, stirring tensions within member states and the European Commission.

France, Europe's biggest poultry producer, has led opposition to scrapping the ban, which French Agriculture Minister Michel Barnier described as "a symbolic issue."

"The Americans don't have to buy our chickens (and) we don't have to accept theirs," he told reporters at a meeting with EU counterparts in Slovenia.

Likewise, German Farm Minister Horst Seehofer said lifting the ban would be a "totally mistaken decision" and he did not "know a single EU member that was in favour."

With such opposition, the proposal has little chance of getting the required backing from member states. Despite the tensions over the issue, Verheugen has sought to get the proposal to lift the ban on the table at a June 10 EU-US summit in Slovenia, which holds the bloc's rotating presidency.

The US food industry uses the chlorine washing process on its poultry to kill off bacteria, including salmonella, before it reaches consumers' plates. EU veterinary experts favour hygiene controls throughout the hatching and rearing cycle to better ensure that the bacteria does not develop in the first place.

The prospect of lifting the ban was only made possible after a new European Food Safety Authority assessment last month.

It found that the four substances used in the US for cleaning poultry carcasses -- chlorine dioxide, acidified sodium chlorite, trisodium phosphate and peroxyacids -- represented "no safety concern within the proposed conditions of use."

In a joint letter to the commission, the BEUC European consumers association, the Copa-Cogeca farmers group and the European Environmental Bureau voiced their "serious concern" about the move.

"We urge you not to open the EU's gates to chlorinated chicken, even if, as we were informed by your services, this were to be only for a period of two years, the time required to carry out further scientific studies," they said in the letter.

EU Health Commissioner Androula Vassilou said last week she considered current European measures for protecting chicken meat from bacteria to be appropriate but stopped short of saying that she was against lifting the ban.

Verheugen's drive to get the ban on US chicken lifted has sparked tensions within the commission itself, where he has frequently clashed with more environmentally conscious colleagues.

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