Here are just a few of the reasons that China has a reputation of the one of the “world’s worst food safety offenders:” avian flu; meat from foxes, rats and minks repackaged as mutton; a 2008 scandal in which milk formula was “supplemented” with melamine; pigs given plentiful amounts of antibiotics; thousands of pigs and, more recently, hundreds of thousands of dead fish found floating in rivers.
We have reason to wonder about the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s just announced (the Friday before Labor Day) decision to allow four Chinese chicken processors to start shipping a limited amount of meat to the United States.
The announcement ends a ban on importing Chinese chicken products to the United States and raises more than a few questions about food imports and food safety.
Initially, the poultry from the Chinese companies will only be from chickens that were raised and slaughtered in the United States and Canada, or from whatever countries are allowed to export slaughtered poultry to the United States. After being exported to China to be ”heat-treated/cooked,” these chickens are shipped back to the United States and then, after traveling back and forth across the Pacific, turned into any manner of chicken products.
As part of a trade deal that is being closely watched by the U.S. beef and pork industry (who are eager to export their products to the very large, hungry-for-meat market in China — American beef has been banned in China since 2003 due to fears of mad cow disease), the U.S.D.A. audited Chinese processing plants and has, evidently, decided they pass its approval. As a result, the Chinese facilities will be able to verify that they received poultry from plants in the United States and Canada. Accordingly, no U.S.D.A. officials will be inspecting China’s processing plants.
“Even worse,” as Bloomberg Businessweek points out, because the poultry originated in the United States and Canada and the birds are “only” processed in China, no point-of-origin labeling will be required by the U.S.D.A. That is, the chicken nuggets on your child’s plate or the chicken bits in some store-bought soup could have been processed in China. You won’t be able to know.
We have no idea about safety and sanitation standards in Chinese processing plants, Bloomberg underscores:
The Chinese government, sensitive to people’s beliefs that it isn’t doing enough to protect their food supply, has made a point of regular, ineffective crackdowns on food-safety violators. Yet in July, when a senior Chinese policy maker involved in developing new food safety standards was asked at a press conference if and when it would meet developed-world standards, he conceded that it would, instead, have to meet China’s “national condition” as a developing country. In other words: China’s food supply cannot meet USDA standards.
The United States does allow chicken imports from China for animal consumption. Since December 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has reported 501 dog deaths (and thousands of cases of dogs who’ve taken ill), from eating chicken jerky treats made in China. The F.D.A. Center for Veterinary Medicine has tested products for contaminants and has even sent experts to China to investigate plants that made the toxic “treats,” but has not yet been able to figure out the reason for the problem.
The U.S.D.A.’s decision to end the ban on chicken imports from China “is the first step towards allowing China to export its own domestic chickens to the U.S.,” says Tony Corbo, a senior lobbyist for Food and Water Watch, in the New York Times.
While wondering what the U.S.D.A. was thinking, or not, in allowing chicken processed in China to enter the U.S. food supply, it’s best — if you eat meat — to seek out chicken that’s locally produced, from organic and other suppliers. It may well cost more but at least you know it hasn’t made a trip halfway around the world and back, with who knows what going on at various stages of its journey.
Photo from Thinkstock