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Price isn’t everything

Brexit and the Chickens of Death

Americans might be surprised to know just how prominent a role chickens have played in the debate over Brexit in the United Kingdom. Specifically, chlorinated chickens.

For those who don’t know, these are chickens which have been washed in chlorinated water. This is standard practice here in the United States, to reduce the various bacteria and infections the carcass is prone to. That there is no obvious problem with this is something with which even the European Union’s (EU) own phytosanitary advisers agree.

Yet, to listen to some in Britain, specifically those who wished to remain in the EU, chlorinated chickens represent a grave threat to British safety. In Britain’s desperate search for a trade deal post-Brexit, it is argued, they will sign up to any old thing the American government wants, and chief among these – at the behest of Big Poultry – will be a demand to sell chlorinated chickens to the poor, unsuspecting Brits. And this means bad things. As these people tell it, chlorinated chickens are the second leading cause of death in the United States after AR-15s. Or something.

The EU has banned washing chickens in chlorine since 1997, despite the advice of its own advisers, effectively barring virtually all imports of US chicken. This is not because the practice is unsafe. Indeed, in 2005 the European Food Safety Authority said that “exposure to chlorite residues arising from treated poultry carcasses would be of no safety concern” and chlorine-rinsed bagged salads are common in the UK and other countries in the EU. Rather, the EU makes the implausible argument that relying on a chlorine rinse at the end of the meat production process could be a way of compensating for poor hygiene standards, such as dirty or crowded abattoirs. The real reason is that American chicken is perhaps 20% cheaper than that produced in Europe and producers there just don’t want the competition. The EU is, after all, simply a big, protectionist bloc.

If you don’t want a chlorinated chicken, don’t eat one

Of course, the obvious answer to all this is to let people choose. If you value cheaper chicken and are willing to take the non-existent risks that come from chlorination – and regulations such as this are regressive; they impact those in lower incomes more heavily – you should be free to buy that cheaper chicken. And if you think the non-existent risks of chlorinated chickens aren’t worth it, don’t buy it. Pay the 20% premium for European chicken. All these regulations do is impose the costs of one group’s set of choices on another group who may not share their preferences.

The myth of the ‘race to the bottom’

At this point in the discussion someone will almost always invoke the ‘race to the bottom’. This says that a country with lower standards can charge lower prices than a country with higher standards. Given this, people will buy products from the country with lower standards. To compete, the country with higher standards will have to lower its standards so that it can compete on price with the country with lower standards. The result is that standards everywhere are beaten down to the lowest common denominator: the ‘race to the bottom’.

This all relies on the assumption that price is the only thing people take into consideration when weighing alternative products. But this assumption is false, and that fact is never more clear than on Valentine’s Day (hence the tenuous reason for posing this today). How many of us, weighing between restaurants to take our significant other to tonight, will be looking for the cheapest option? Few, I’d suggest, who are hoping for another date. Price will certainly be a factor for most of us, but only one. We’d also consider the quality of food, the ambiance, location: “I want some food in a nice place, nice atmosphere with some good people” Reggie Hammond says in 48 Hrs., “I want some mandolins and some violins…” If fears about the ‘race to the bottom’ are correct, why isn’t everybody going to White Castle for Valentine’s Day?

Consider, as another example, Britain’s single payer health system, the National Health Service (NHS). If asked to list its benefits, supporters will almost always say “It’s free”*, they never say “It’s top quality”, which should ring alarm bells in itself. But, when weighing health care systems, we have to take into account other factors than which is the cheapest. We could get a very cheap system if we replaced modern hospitals with Civil War dressing stations. But the quality of the healthcare has to be a factor too, just like those mandolins and violins when you choose a restaurant for tonight.

Which brings us back to chickens. The existence of shops like Mississippi Market shows that there are people who weigh more than just low prices when they shop for food. Those people can afford to, and good luck to them. But, all too often, worries about a ‘race to the bottom’ are simply an excuse to impose these preferences on those who are less able to afford them.

*It isn’t, you pay in advance via income tax. Supporters now say that it is ‘free at the point of use’, but so is a microwave dinner when you eat it two weeks after you paid for it.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment. 

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