Why do people need to ban chlorinated chicken?

Here’s a question, amid the slightly odd political row about whether Britain should allow the import of ‘chlorine-washed chicken from the US: if people hate chlorinated chicken, why do they need to ban it? Why can’t they just not buy it themselves?

According to the Adam Smith Institute (ASI), permitting the American practice of washing chickens in chlorine at the end of the supply chain, rather than insisting on strict decontamination throughout, as the EU does, could reduce costs without significantly compromising safety. If chlorinated chickens are any more likely to cause sickness (which a wide range of experts seem to dispute), the increased risk appears to be pretty small. In large part, though, the objection to the product seems to be rooted in a more visceral disgust. As Nick Clegg describes it:

“It’s bleached – bloody horrible stuff – which is not allowed in the EU, the EU has decided, through various laws. You tell me, but I suspect the good shoppers of Waitrose and Sainsbury’s and others might be a little bit shocked if, suddenly, they are having to eat this slightly white, chlorine-washed American chicken flesh.”

Which is fine. Nobody should have to eat things they find repellent. The question is why that preference should be binding on everybody else. Why wouldn’t it be better to have chlorinated and non-chlorinated options on offer, and let the market decide? Those who want to go for the cheaper, maybe riskier, grosser option can do that, and if not enough are that way inclined, chlorinated chicken will disappear from the shelves.

One possibility is that if regulations were relaxed non-chlorinated chicken would disappear – farmers might decide not to produce it, or supermarkets might decide not to stock it. In practice, consumer choice is limited by shelf space and producer decisions. However, there isn’t much reason to think that would be the case. The ASI report points out that organic chicken in the US is not chlorine washed.

Here’s what I think is going on. This sort of consumer choice is, for most people, inconvenient. Sure, now they know about chlorine-washing, and to look out for it when they choose which chicken to buy. But will they remember by the time a trade deal is struck with the US, which likely won’t be for another couple of years at least? And chlorine-washing is just the practice in the headlines. Who knows what other icky things they don’t know about? Multiplied across all the items in a person’s shopping trolley, we are talking about dozens of product attributes and production practices that a consumer needs to inform themselves of, and look out for. Far better, I suspect a lot of people think, to trust regulators to make sure that nothing too terrible is going on behind the scenes so they don’t have to worry too much. The fear around chlorinated chicken, I think, is a fear that consumers will no longer be able to trust regulators, and so won’t be able to delegate this legwork.

A few things to notice. First, it seems a bit unusual to trade freedom, one of the dominant values of our culture, off against convenience, but that’s what it appears is happening here. Those who want to buy cheap chlorinated chicken are being denied the freedom to do so because it would make everybody else’s shopping experience that little more arduous. I’m not saying this is wrong – small inconveniences add up, and the liberty at stake is fairly minor – but it is striking nonetheless.

Second,  consider the idea of responsibility in this argument. Consumers that want to ban chlorinated chicken want to give responsibility for avoiding accidentally buying things they don’t like to regulators. I suspect free-marketers like ASI would demand they take a bit more responsibility for themselves. For my part, I think this shows how responsibility is not an unalloyed good.

Third, it is notable that this position seems to rely heavily on trust in regulators. If people didn’t think that regulators were effective in looking out for their interests, they would surely be more likely to default to wanting to expand consumer choice and to taking on the responsibility for themselves.

These arguments don’t just apply to chicken. For example, how do we know that restaurant hygiene standards aren’t too zealous? If restaurants can cut corners and provide riskier but cheaper meals, maybe consumers should have the option to patronise them. There are certainly similar issues at stake in the question of whether Britain should have more ‘slums’ – cheaper housing held to lower standards than existing planning regulations. In all these cases, increasing options for a minority causes inconvenience for the majority that can no longer rely on certain minimal standards they would prefer to take for granted.

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