WASHINGTON – In the aftermath of several high-profile incidents of food contamination in China, food-safety advocates in the United States are alarmed about a decision made by the Obama administration that allows chicken processed in China to be sold in the US, according to a Bloomberg report. The US Department of Agriculture indicates it plans to allow poultry slaughtered in the US and Canada to be processed in China and returned to the US for consumption.
Critics vow to fight this decision, which they say puts consumers at risk due to lax Chinese food-processing oversight. In a Sept. 16 letter to US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Sen. Charles Schumer wrote “The Chinese food-safety system has had significant failures in the enforcement of its food-safety laws and regulations.”
In recent months, China has suffered an outbreak of avian influenza in its chicken flocks and in March, Shanghai authorities retrieved more than 11,000 dead pigs floating in a river, among other food-safety events that are causing concern.
But the USDA relayed through its fact sheet that “Consumers should know that any processed poultry from China will be produced under equivalent food-safety standards and conditions as U.S. poultry.”
At present, the US government allows Canada, Chile, France and Israel to export processed poultry to the US. Meanwhile, US poultry producers say just about all the chicken eaten in the US will still be produced and processed domestically.
Tom Super, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, said, “Ninety-nine percent of the chicken we consume here is hatched, raised and processed in the US. We don’t expect that to change any time soon.”
Last year, the US exported $354.1 million worth of poultry products to China, representing about 7 percent of total US poultry exports, according to Census Bureau data. At present, the US doesn’t import Chinese poultry. Tyson Foods Inc., Sanderson Farms Inc. and McDonald’s Corp. spokesmen said their companies don’t plan to import processed chicken from China.
Regardless of assurances, Schumer has asked USDA for additional audits of Chinese plants and more inspections of US meat imports. China must now identify companies that will process imported poultry, said Stacy Kish, a spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. Processed chicken from China must be labeled as a product of China, according to the agency.
In 2004, China asked USDA to audit its processing plants so poultry could be exported, according to the agency. In 2009, the US Congress lifted a ban on Chinese-processed poultry. After a final audit of China’s plants in March, USDA agreed in August that China’s facilities were equivalent to those in the US. According to the agreement, chicken sent to China for processing must be raised and slaughtered in either the US or Canada, and all poultry must be fully cooked at least 165.2°F before being delivered back to the US for consumption. USDA inspections will take place at US borders, while agency auditors will audit China’s poultry processing system annually.