Funky Chicken

Do American birds taste funny because we chlorinate them?

A roasting chicken

Barack Obama was vague about key trade issues during his recent trip to Europe, according to an analysis published in Friday’s New York Times. The article referred specifically to the 11-year European ban on importing chlorinated chickens from the United States, a sanction that “is less about safety than about taste.” Does chlorine really make our chickens taste funky?

It might. In 1999, researchers at the University of Georgia conducted a thorough taste comparison of chlorinated vs. nonchlorinated chicken. The researchers made light- and dark-meat patties out of both treated and nontreated meat, then baked and refrigerated them. An eight-member panel was trained in the use of a standard taste-intensity scale and then sampled reheated portions of the patties over the course of four days. The panelists tested for several distinct aromatics: “chickeny,” “meaty,” “rancid,” and “warmed-over.” On the initial day of testing—before the patties had been refrigerated—there was no significant difference in taste between any of the patties. But by the fourth day of testing, the chemically treated patties tasted significantly more reheated than the nontreated ones.

In any case, the chlorine won’t make your bird smell or taste like a swimming pool. Since the mid-1990s, when nationwide E. coli and salmonella scares prompted the U.S. Department of Agriculture to establish strict microbiological regulations for the meat and poultry industry, the chemical has become a popular agent for disinfecting chickens. After birds are killed, defeathered, and eviscerated, the carcasses are chilled in massive bathtubs to prevent bacterial buildup. Chemical disinfectants—in about 80 percent of cases, that’s chlorine—are added to the water to reduce cross-contamination and stem further bacterial growth. Chlorinated solutions may also be used in the evisceration process as well as during online reprocessing, during which traces of fecal matter are power-washed away.

The USDA has a strict cap on the amount of chlorine that can be used in these chiller baths: no more than 50 parts per million, or 50 ounces for every 7,800 gallons of water. As a point of comparison, the federal limit on chlorine used in drinking water is 4 ppm, and swimming pools usually contain 1 to 3 ppm. (That distinctive pool smell usually attributed to chlorine is actually produced by the combination of chlorine and perspiration, body oils, and urine.) In the disinfection process, the chlorine added to the chiller bath reacts with the meat in such a way that no free chlorine—that’s the active, germ-killing stuff—remains. If the chlorine is used correctly, most people won’t be able to detect any traces of it, particularly after cooking.

Chlorine is used in the treatment of other food products besides chicken, such as seafood and produce. There are other poultry disinfection options—radiation, for one—but for now, chlorine and other chemical agents remain the most cost-effective options, particularly since the perceived taste difference doesn’t seem to be much of an issue for American consumers.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Michael Batz of the Food Safety Research Consortium, Stephen Pretanik of the National Chicken Council, and Scott Russell of the University of Georgia. Thanks also to reader Landon Hall for asking the question.