For 13 years and counting, the European Union has banned imports of U.S. poultry over the use of chlorine during processing, and Russia has recently assumed the same stance. As U.S. officials continue to challenge this ruling through the World Trade Organization (WTO), experts at the USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) have responded to the problem in their own way. Several ARS scientists recently finished testing an innovative, effective sanitizing rinse using lauric acid and potassium hydroxide that could offer a solution to the standoff while at the same time offer an alternative to the current poultry processing practices here in the U.S.
American poultry marketers have been frustrated over the EU's seemingly arbitrary ban, ironic in that the use of chlorine as a sanitizer is currently REQUIRED for U.S. poultry processors to prevent cross–contamination of dangerous pathogens such as salmonella and e. coli. Chlorine–based chemicals are in the antimicrobial water baths used to rapidly chill the carcasses to prevent bacterial growth after the feathers are removed (a process that uses heat), and the USDA mandates a near–constant chlorine rinse for cutting equipment. By having another option, U.S. producers could once again export poultry meat to Europe and Russia.
In Europe, the poultry industry says it is responding to "society's good intentions and growing interest in buying 'green and environmental (sic) friendly' products." According to the EU poultry industry trade association AVEC, its industry observes "strict biosecurity measures in the food chain from farm to fork, and (it) does not need antimicrobial treatments to remove surface contamination." In reporting the EU agricultural council's vote in December 2008 to reject the U.S. chlorine treatment of poultry meat, AVEC wrote that there is "no need now to introduce the use of other substances than potable water for decontamination of poultry carcasses."
If you're wondering what the fuss over chlorine is about, the EU regulators seek to protect consumers from trihalomethanes – suspected carcinogenic (cancer–causing) compounds – that supposedly form in the poultry meat immersed in sodium hypochlorite baths. However, researchers at Mississippi State University published results in 2009 of testing they conducted using two methods: one proscribed by the Association of Official Analytical Chemists and one by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. No THMs were detected at or above the detection limits for the respective methods.
The USDA's researchers, in proposing another sanitizing method, may release the logjam to exporting to the sizable European and Russian markets. Lauric acid is a saturated fatty acid that is the main acid found naturally in coconut oil and palm kernel oil. In their development and testing of the lauric acid and potassium hydroxide combination, ARS researchers established the minimum concentrations of the two chemicals for efficacy as an antimicrobial, as well as the duration of the spray contacting the eviscerated carcasses.
The politics and science behind the controversy can be difficult to parse. The Europeans are so passionately opposed to poultry meat exposed to chlorine that even the levels found in U.S. municipal water supplies are reported to be unacceptable to them. The chlor–alkali industry trade group Euro Chlor was founded in 1989 – a time, notes executive director Alistair Steel, that it was "under scathing attack...from the deluded notion that chlorine was the 'devil's element.' This may well have been the beginning of the use of junk science to prove an emotional point."
Tyson, one of the leading poultry producers based in the U.S., responded to the EU shutout with the purchase of three poultry plants in Brazil in 2008. The company now exports to European nations from there.
Generally speaking, the U.S. poultry industry has grown more efficient over the years, producing larger chickens in less time with a smaller feed to meat ratios than a generation ago. Before Russia joined in banning chlorine–processed poultry imports in January 2010, it was the largest export market for the U.S.; the U.S. exported $800 million in poultry to Russia over the past three years. The CEO of one Russian meat processor told the Moscow Times in January that his company had stopped using chlorine several years ago. At least one of the company's subsidiaries uses air–chilling instead of chlorine–laced baths, and expects that "the huge reserves of unsold products" would help to meet the market demand for chicken.
With the development of an alternative to chlorine for processing chicken and turkey, the USDA may have found a way for U.S. processors to once again supply European and Russian with American–raised poultry for the dinner table.