Chicken raised in China is currently banned in the United States and several countries around the world due to health risks, but the U.S. ban could soon end. A deal is believed to be in the works that will open the American market to Chinese chicken in exchange for China accepting U.S. beef.
In order for Chinese chicken to be eligible for import into the United States, the USDA must approve China’s slaughter and processing systems. Those approvals are moving forward.
In August China was approved for processing non-Chinese chickens to be sent to the United States. Politicians, media, and health advocates have decried this approval due to China’s long record of tainted products and poisonous foods.
“This is a first step, this is a foot in the door to get to the end goal, which is Chinese origin chickens raised there, killed there, processed there, and then that product comes here,” said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch, in a phone interview. “That isn’t yet allowed, but it is the next step.”
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) warned during a Nov. 10 press conference that China processing chickens was only the beginning.
“The USDA is getting ready to allow chickens that are raised and processed in China to be sold here,” Schumer said.
He cited examples of some of China’s tainted foods, including glass chips found in Chinese pumpkin seeds and deadly melamine in Chinese baby formula. Schumer said China’s poor food safety record is especially a concern given that “because of cutbacks, our U.S. Department of Agriculture does not do the inspections that are needed and necessary.”
The USDA responded to Schumer, saying in a statement, “USDA has not found China’s poultry slaughter system to be equivalent and therefore poultry slaughtered in China is not allowed to be imported to the United States.”
However, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is currently auditing China’s chicken slaughter system, and the current audit may lead to approval.
A representative from FSIS told Epoch Times by email the department “is still in the process of conducting an audit on the Chinese slaughter system. FSIS has sent the audit report results to China for comment. We are awaiting their response.”
Poultry For Beef
Experts believe the moves by the USDA regarding Chinese chicken are being taken to end a trade war that began when China banned U.S. beef in 2003, after a case of mad cow disease was found in Washington state.
Importing beef to China, Lovera of Food and Water Watch said, is the bargaining chip meant to open U.S. markets to Chinese chicken.
Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute, agrees: “China shut down beef imports from the U.S. so the agriculture department has been trying to get that reopened. Part of the trade would be to let China send chickens here,” he said.
A paper trail shows this deal has been talked about for some time.
A 2010 report from the Congressional Research Service states, “[Chinese] officials have tried in the past to make the exportation of poultry products to the United States a quid pro quo for re-opening U.S. beef exports to [China].”
Documents, internal letters, and USDA emails from 2005 to 2009, requests by advocacy group Food & Water Watch and obtained through Freedom of Information Act, show a similar connection.
“China represents one of the largest potential growth markets for U.S. beef—worth in excess of $100 million. The chicken dispute is likely to impede ongoing efforts to open up China to U.S. beef,” states a 2009 National Cattlemen’s Beef Association letter, obtained by Food & Water Watch.
The ongoing suspicion of what’s behind the USDA’s recent approval of Chinese chicken processing facilities comes down to basic math.
“Many economists have expressed doubt as to how this would actually work,” said Thomas Super, vice president of communications at the National Chicken Council, a nonprofit trade association, which represents the U.S. chicken industry to Congress and federal agencies.
“Think about it,” Super said in an email. “A Chinese company would have to purchase frozen chicken in the United States, pay to ship it 7,000 miles, unload it, transport it to a processing plant, unpack it, cut it up, process/cook it, freeze it, repack it, transport it back to a port, then ship it another 7,000 miles.”
“I don’t know how anyone could make a profit doing that,” he said.
A USDA FSIS representative told Epoch Times by email that “at this time” no companies in the United States or Canada have signed up to send raw chickens to China for processing. Likewise, no processing facilities in China have signed up to process U.S. or Canadian chickens.
Of course, ruling out Canada and the United States does not mean no companies are using the service. The United States receives chickens from other countries, such as Chile, that can now process their chickens in China for shipment to the United States.
While the deal for equivalence between U.S. beef and Chinese chicken comes down to profit, the ones who pay may be consumers.
Since 2007, more than 3,600 dogs and 10 cats have fallen ill, and more than 580 have died in the United States due to jerky treats made from Chinese chicken.
Lab results showed the Chinese chicken contained six unapproved antibiotic drugs, according to an Oct. 22, 2013, post on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) website.
The FDA gave a vague warning about the ongoing problem: “Pet owners should be aware that manufacturers do not need to list the country of origin for each ingredient used in their products, so packages … may still contain ingredients sourced from China …”
Humans are now in a similar position. The labels for chickens processed in China will not indicate where the processing was done.
“The overall Chinese food system is struggling,” said Lovera.
“They don’t have a food safety regulatory structure in place that is working,” she said. “It’s almost daily that there’s something in the news there about their domestic food supply—ranging from fraud, to pathogen problems, to illegal drugs in raising animals.”
“If the rules aren’t in place for that market, we’re not confident the rules are in place for the export market either,” she said.
Schumer cited some of the problems with Chinese food safety in a Sept. 16 press release.
It includes people selling rat, fox, and mink under the guise of lamb meat; 175 people falling ill from Chinese dumplings tainted with insecticides; eggs tainted with melamine; and tainted baby formula that caused at least 200 babies to fall ill and killed 13.
Then there was the glow-in-the-dark pork found to contain phosphorescent bacteria.
A representative from USDA FSIS told Epoch Times by email it will inspect Chinese facilities once a year, and products will be checked for damage or packaging flaws. Select shipments will also be checked in a lab for pathogens and harmful chemicals.
“FSIS performs increased import re-inspection activities for countries that are beginning to export product to the Unites States,” the representative said.
Schumer’s press release states, “While the plants and processing methods have been deemed initially safe by the USDA, lax enforcement going forward could expose U.S. consumers to serious risk of food borne illness, especially given the appallingly poor food-safety track record of Chinese food products.”
One of the main concerns with Chinese chicken is the H5N1 virus, also called “avian flu” or “bird flu.”
Chinese chicken is banned in many countries around the world, out of concern for bird flu. Among them are Pakistan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Ukraine, Germany, and Japan.
Avian flu is less of a concern with cooked chickens. However, if the current audit goes through and raw Chinese chickens come to the United States, it does pose a threat.
“It’s bad enough here, even in the U.S., where poultry is the leading cause of food-borne illness,” said Michael Gregor, author of “Bird Flu: A virus of our own hatching,” and director of public health and animal agriculture at the Humane Society.
“You’re cramming tens of thousands of birds beak-to-beak in these football field-sized, filthy sheds,” Gregor said. “It’s just a breeding ground for pathogens.”
He noted that China “has a terrible food safety record,” and when you combine methods to farm chickens with China’s poor food safety records, “you have the worst case scenario.”