Transatlantic Chicken Littles: The Chlorine Is Falling On Us!

UK Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox visited the United States last week to talk about a possible U.S. - UK trade deal, leading to predictable hysteria: Oh my God this trade deal will allow "chlorinated chickens" to be sold in the UK! Hide the children and get into the bomb shelter!

I hate to spoil a good freak out, but allow me to clarify the situation: The UK may or may not allow chickens cleaned with chlorine to be sold there at some point, but if it does so, it will almost certainly not be due to a U.S. - UK trade deal.

How do I know this? Because WTO obligations probably already prohibit such a ban, and the U.S. already brought a complaint against the EU in 2009, which it seems to have abandoned, so a U.S. - UK trade deal will not add much on this issue. If the WTO could not change things, there is no reason to think a bilateral deal will.

Why didn't the U.S. pursue the WTO case? Because it knows, based on experience, that a trade litigation win is unlikely to help U.S. industry get its chlorinated chickens into the EU market. The experience in question comes from hormone treated beef. Here is a brief history of that WTO case. The U.S. filed a WTO complaint; the U.S. won the complaint; the EU did not remove the ban; the U.S. imposed authorized trade sanctions; the EU still did not remove the ban; the U.S. and EU reach a settlement under which the U.S. could sell more non-hormone treated beef in the EU; and the U.S. is now considering whether to push harder with the WTO complaint to get hormone treated beef sold in the EU market.

Here's another spoiler: It will not succeed. For both chicken and beef, the U.S. industry is correct, both on the science and the law, at least in the following sense: No one can prove harm from the U.S. farming practices in question, and as a result of this, the EU regulations violate WTO obligations. But that is of little relevance to the issue of whether these products will ever actually be sold in the EU (or the UK). The EU and UK are simply not going to change these regulations based on U.S. demands in a trade negotiation or in trade litigation. The issues are too sensitive politically. Trade negotiations and litigation can work in some situations, but not where public sentiment is so strong. As a result, lobbying by a foreign government will not get the job done here.

So Brits can relax about all this. The U.S. is not going to get UK chicken farming regulations changed through a trade deal.

It is understandable that this frustrates U.S. industry. But the answer is to go directly to the British people. Explain your practices and why they are safe. Do a demonstration: Eat some U.S. chicken on camera, test your vital signs afterwards, and run a marathon. Or emphasize the total absence of horsemeat from your chicken products. Have some fun with it.

Some day, European governments may have a different attitude about these farming practices. European regulators are more relaxed about some products than their American counterparts, so the situation is more complex than the common view of Europeans always being more strict on regulation than Americans. But such a change is going to have to reflect the views of the people themselves, and has to come through the domestic political and legal process of those countries.

A U.S. - UK trade deal might make progress on other aspects of regulatory cooperation — auto safety, for example — that are less politically contentious. But it is not going to lead to chlorinated chickens in the UK (or to NHS privatization for that matter). So please go back to freaking out about Brexit. That's a better use of everyone's time.

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