Which is why it was stunning to learn this month that chickens raised and slaughtered in the U.S. may soon be sent for cooking and processing to China, then sent back to the U.S. to be sold in fast-food restaurants and supermarkets.
For the first time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has given permission for four food processors in China to export cooked poultry products made from chickens raised in the U.S. and Canada.
But don’t think you’ll be able to tell from the label if your chicken nuggets, fast-food chicken sandwich or chicken noodle soup bits have traveled to China and back. You won’t. Federal labeling regulations — called country-of-origin labeling — apply only to identifying food that originated outside the U.S., not where it was processed.
The decision to partially lift the ban was made quietly just before Labor Day weekend, after the documents regarding the decision were reported by the news website Politico.
Considering China’s checkered reputation for following food-safety guidelines — the deadly bird-flu outbreaks, and tainted baby formula and pet food, among other issues — lawmakers have blocked the USDA from allowing China to ship chicken to the U.S. for years.
Not surprisingly, critics slammed the new decision, especially because the plants approved to sell to the U.S. will not have USDA inspectors on site.
Bloomberg News, in an opinion piece headlined “Don’t Trust a Chicken Nugget That’s Visited China,” said that food-safety problems have become so bad in China, “some consumers now smuggle quantities of infant milk formula from foreign countries into China so as to avoid buying potentially tainted Chinese dairy products.”
“What was the USDA thinking when it decided to sign-off on Chinese processed chicken exports for humans?” Bloomberg’s Shanghai correspondent Adam Minter asked.
Some also predicted that this is China’s toe in the door, and eventually it will be allowed to raise chickens and turkeys to be sold in the U.S.
“This is the first step towards allowing China to export its own domestic chickens to the U.S.,” Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist for Food & Water Watch, an advocacy group that works to promote food safety, told the New York Times.
The safety of imported food, which is overseen not by the USDA but by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has long been a source of concern. The website Wired, which has written extensively about China’s controversial history of food-safety problems, notes that the FDA “has been struggling for years with guaranteeing the safety of imports.”
As Wired pointed out: “Reports by the Government Accountability Office, the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Pew Charitable Trusts and Center for Science in the Public Interest all found that the FDA could not keep up with the task; estimating that its inspectors were able to lay hands on no more than 2 percent of imported foods.”
The poultry industry took a cautious, wait-and-see stance in response to the new decision.
“We certainly don’t look forward to any more imports, but we also realize free trade is a two-way street,” Tom Super, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, told the New York Times. “We’re hoping the Chinese will look a little more favorably on our chicken products and on other U.S. agricultural imports.”
Meanwhile, chicken inspections here in the U.S. could be taking a turn for the worse. The USDA has been testing a new program at 29 plants in this country that would dramatically speed up processing lines and replace government inspectors with company employees in order to cut costs.
As the Washington Post reported, the proposed program “would allow the agency to expand the programs from the 29 pilot plants to most of the country’s 239 chicken and 96 turkey plants.”
The Government Accountability Office has criticized the USDA pilot program as being based on questionable, incomplete data that raises “questions about the validity” of the USDA’s conclusion that the program would help reduce food contamination.
The USDA contends otherwise. In a commentary for the website Food Safety News, a spokesman wrote that “this new inspection system would enable [USDA inspectors] to better fulfill our food safety mission. Nothing in the GAO’s report contradicts this basic fact.”
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