A European Commission proposal announced this week to lift a ban on chicken imports rinsed with chemicals has been met with opposition by MEPs.
The EU ban, in place since 1997, has effectively stopped all imports of US poultry meat, which is generally treated by a chemical process.
The Commission's decision will have to be ratified or rejected in the coming weeks by the Standing Committee on Food Chain and Animal Health (SCoFCAH).
The EU's food safety regulator, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), recently adopted an opinion dismissing risks from treating poultry carcasses with chlorinated water.
Threat to EU standards
MEPs, speaking in the Parliament's Environment Committee, said the chlorination of chicken intended for human consumption is not acceptable for the EU and would threaten the community's entire set of food production standards.
French Socialist MEP Anne Ferreira said that lifting the ban would be "totally absurd". She was supported by John Bowis (EPP-ED, UK), who said it would be "outrageous" and would degrade EU citizens to the status of "guinea pigs".
The Commission also wants to allow the use of four currently banned antimicrobials in meat processing plants, citing EFSA endorsement of the chemicals at the start of this year.
Scientific opinion, issued by EFSA in January, stated that the banned chemicals (phosphate, acidified sodium chlorite, chlorine dioxide or peroxyacid) posed no risk to human health and could be used to clean chicken carcasses.
The decision was also one of the first applications of the bloc's new hygiene regulations in relation to removing contamination from meats.
EU regulation No 853/2004, part of the package of hygiene laws that came into effect on 1 January, provides a legal basis to permit the use of a substance other than potable water to remove surface contamination from products of animal origin. Previously, such a legal basis did not exist in the bloc's legislation for red meat and for poultry meat
For many decades food regulators have been hesitant to endorse the use of antimicrobial substances by poultry processors, arguing that processors would use antimicrobials to mask unhygienic slaughter or processing practices.
If permitted for use, it was also feared that their widespread use coupled with high bacterial counts due to unhygienic practices, would induce resistance of the micro flora present on the surface of the treated products.
Food borne infections
Chicken is a major culprit behind Salmonella and Campylobacter food borne infections in the EU. Antimicrobials are a class of substances that destroy or inhibit the growth of bacteria.
"With the adoption of the hygiene package and the introduction of the hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) principles in the entire food chain, establishments are obliged to improve their hygiene and processing procedures," the EFSA stated.
"Under such circumstances the use of antimicrobial substances on food of animal origin can be reconsidered."
The EFSA scientific panel also noted that spraying poultry carcasses with antimicrobials, by comparison to dipping and immersion treatments, reduces the exposure to residues and by-products that might arise.
EFSA's positive opinion and approval of the Commission's decision could result in the widening of choice for food processors in what chemicals they can use when cleaning chicken carcasses.