photo by Lance Cheung, courtesy the U.S. Department of Agriculture
During a deadly typhoid outbreak in Maidstone, England, in 1897, a physician by the name of G. Sims Woodhead persuaded local officials to flush the local water mains with a chlorine solution. The epidemic stopped virtually in its tracks.
It was not until more than a decade later that chlorination was first used regularly in a municipal water supply. It took a daring – by today’s standards, reckless – unauthorized endeavor by an American physician, John Leal, to do it. Under court orders to rapidly provide “pure and wholesome” water, the Jersey City Water Supply Co., where Leal worked, installed the world’s first commercial-scale chlorination system for its Boonton Reservoir on the Rockaway River in 1908. Infectious disease and mortality rates promptly plunged. By 1930 virtually all major U.S. water utilities and many abroad had installed chlorine treatment systems.
But while the regular commercial use of chlorine to protect public health may have started over here, it would not have happened when it did without groundwork laid in England. More than four decades before the Maidstone experiment, a London doctor, John Snow, used painstaking statistical work to prove that cholera spread through consumption of water polluted with sewage. Snow, a pioneer in the field of epidemiology, traced a London cholera outbreak in 1854 to a particular source. That source turned out to be a pump on Broad Street in Soho, contaminated by an adjacent cesspool.
The medical community believed at the time that cholera spread through a “miasma” in the air. Other doctors pooh-poohed Snow’s work. But he persuaded officials to remove the handle from the Broad Street pump, and the epidemic stopped. (By some accounts Snow also may have tried to decontaminate the well with “chloride of lime,” which was how chlorine was described in that era.) Remarkably, after local protests, the Broad Street pump handle returned the following year. The pump remained in service until another disease outbreak in the 1860s.
British swimming pools and public drinking water supplies today are chlorinated in pretty much the same manner as ours. There is no reason to worry about bathing or drinking tap water in any urban center on either side of the pond, at least as far as pathogens are concerned. Lead or other contaminants from antiquated pipes can be another matter. But while chlorine itself is a poison in large enough concentrations, authorities in both countries have harnessed it to the benefit of the public for the better part of a century.
Given our long, intertwined history of pioneering the large-scale use of chlorine to promote public health, a current British furor over the prospect of importing American “chlorinated chicken” is more than a little ironic.
Like so much else in British political life today, at the root of this story lies Brexit. The European Union currently prohibits, as a practical matter, the large-scale importation of American poultry. This is because much of our supply is rinsed with a solution containing chlorine to kill pathogens before the poultry is packaged. Consumers can protect themselves from these pathogens by cooking the meat to recommended temperatures, but the sanitary wash acts as another defense mechanism.
European poultry farms do not use such washes. The continent’s official line is that more comfortable and fastidious conditions in poultry farms are more humane for the birds and protect the humans who consume them. European opponents of imported American birds do not go as far as arguing that the American practice is unsafe for consumers; even the Europeans acknowledge that our method works from a consumer safety standpoint. Instead, they claim that knowing the chlorine wash will stand as a last line of defense leads American farmers to be careless of their birds’ welfare. The American poultry industry has argued for years that the European rules serve simply to protect its local poultry industry from competition.
The stakes of improperly handling poultry can be high. Salmonella, especially, poses a risk of understandable concern to European and American authorities alike. But despite the nature of the rhetoric, the debate about American-style treated poultry is not about the health of the end consumer. Neither American nor British farmers want their customers to get sick; both take steps to prevent it. In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that a recent salmonella outbreak was due to people raising backyard poultry flocks, rather than anything industrial farmers are doing or failing to do.
With the United Kingdom slated to leave the EU at the end of this month, British industry and government officials have sounded the alarm about losing the shelter of the continent’s rules. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Boris Johnson will begin work soon after the break on a new trade deal between the U.S. and the U.K. It is a safe bet that our side will press for market access for American birds, and an equally safe bet that our counterparts will resist. For now, British officials say the ban on U.S. chicken will remain.
It is anybody’s guess where this dispute will land. Locally raised and free-range poultry has gained in popularity in the U.K., as it has over here in recent years. British flocks will therefore probably stand up pretty well, even in the face of Yankee chicken. Besides, the big EU export market next door will still be hungry for chicken raised the way they prefer. The marketplace would be a better forum to settle this squawk. From an American perspective, the British protests just don’t fly.