Food safety inspectors could have their work cut out for them as chicken processing for the U.S. market opens in China. Aside from lack of manpower to inspect shipments when they arrive here in the United States, many would-be inspectors in China are denied entry or get their visas delayed by Chinese authorities.
Currently, Chinese chicken, beef, and pork are banned for sale in the United States. However, China was recently approved to process and cook chickens for the U.S., and audits are underway to approve raw Chinese chickens for sale in the United States.
Most inspections of Chinese imports are currently done by the FDA, which is in charge of non-meat imports, as well as seafood. A Nov. 20 report from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission highlights some serious problems faced by inspectors.
The report states the FDA has “found it difficult to increase on-the-ground inspections” in China, “in part because Chinese authorities have delayed visas for FDA inspectors and restricted access to food production sites.”
The USDA is already having similar problems, according to Tony Corbo, Senior lobbyist for the food program at Food & Water Watch.
“I know when USDA went over there in December 2010 to do some audit visits to the poultry facilities, the Chinese completely changed the itinerary of the plants they would visit,” Corbo said in a phone interview.
“Each time USDA goes to visit China it’s a completely different set of facilities they’re visiting,” he said, citing documents received through Freedom of Information Act requests.
Given China’s poor record of food safety, the subsequent lack of oversight is a serious problem.
There are ongoing scandals around tainted foods in China, such as deadly melamine in baby formula and glass chips in pumpkin seeds. Chinese chicken is also already taking its toll on American pets. Since 2007, Chinese chicken tainted with illegal antibiotics in dog treats has caused more than 3,600 dogs to fall ill in the U.S. and killed more than 580.
Since meats are outside the FDA’s scope, inspections of Chinese facilities and shipments will fall under the USDA.
A representative from the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service told Epoch Times by email they check products for damage or problems with labeling. The USDA will also re-inspect select shipments, and test for harmful chemicals or pathogens—particularly when a country has been recently approved, like China.
If the USDA’s experience is anything like the FDA’s experience, however, it may not be enough.
“USDA made this determination that the two systems will be equivalent, but the oversight of that system on a day to day basis is a concern for us,” said Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute, in a phone interview.
Waldrop said the USDA will do an annual review of Chinese facilities, “but the rest of the time, the oversight is on the hands of the companies in China and the Chinese government.”
Budget cuts add another layer of trouble. The USDA used to be required to conduct annual inspections, Corbo said, but after the 2010 budget cuts “now they will visit once every three years.”
Chinese authorities have a history of putting on a show for foreign inspectors—whether they be at factories, food facilities, or prison camps. And if history says anything, it is likely Chinese authorities are delaying visas of inspectors to put some finishing touches on the stage.
Sometimes the setups can be simple—with actors and new machinery—and sometimes the cover-up schemes can be more elaborate.
Paul Midler detailed this practice in his book, Poorly Made in China, which includes his first-hand accounts in Chinese factories while working as an American manufacturing agent.
He detailed an inspection of a Chinese factory in southern China, how he was given a tour through a clean environment with content workers. Then, after finishing the inspection and while waiting for his car, he decided to have one more check. He looked through a window to the factory floor to find it empty.
“Trying to process what had just happened, I felt as though I had just been to a magic show and seen a large elephant disappear,” he writes, adding “How could a factory be in full swing one moment and gone the next?”
Midler also details the use of “quality fade” by Chinese factories—something he encountered frequently. It refers to a deliberate and incremental process where manufacturers cut costs by reducing quality of parts and ingredients over time.
Chinese factories have even been known to pull similar tricks on their own government inspectors—and have been doing so for years.
Former Chinese premier Zhu Rongji documented a similar experience from May 1988, while inspecting a granary in China’s Nanling County.
Just prior to the inspection, the local government had transported 1,031 tons of grain from out of town. It took 200 people working 4 days to create the illusion that “the granary was fully packed.”
Zhu found out. According to the recent book, “Zhu Rongji on the Record,” he said “Before I went there, the granary was completely empty. [Just before I got there], they moved some crops from elsewhere to the granary and placed them in an orderly way. They dared to lie to me.”