New attempts to toughen U.S. inspection requirements on countries that export meat and poultry to the United States are little more than disguised targeting of China specifically, says a key meat-import official.

Earlier this week, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) told reporters that a move earlier this decade by USDA to allow imports of Chinese cooked poultry shows that the business of trade trumps public health concerns. DeLauro heads the House committee in charge of appropriating money to USDA. "I think we need to take a hard look" at overhauling the way the U.S. assesses the food-safety programs of exporting nations, she commented. The present system is based on equivalency – nations that are judged to have meat and poultry programs equivalent to the U.S.’s qualify for certification to export meat and poultry to the U.S. – but "when you grant equivalency, you lose most of the control of the process," said the congresswoman, who has used her chairwoman’s power to prevent USDA from allowing imports of Chinese chicken. She proposes that the ban continue through 2010.

"I think it’s just a gut reaction to one country," Laurie Bryant, executive director of the Meat Importers Council of America, told "There’s also a lack of understanding of FSIS’s and APHIS’s systems and precautions."

Bryant thinks FSIS’s inspection equivalency method is effective. "They’ve got a very extensive process, very thorough," he commented. "They look at equivalence on an outcome basis, which means that another country might have a different way of doing things, but if the outcome is equivalent, then that’s okay."

China, he said, hurt itself by inadequately controlling contamination of consumer and pet products with melamine and other disallowed ingredients. "They’re getting their act together, I think, but really, they caused all this at the beginning."

The import ban on Chinese cooked chicken instituted by USDA at the behest of DeLauro’s committee has angered the government in Beijing, which earlier this month stopped issuing permits to U.S. poultry companies for export of product to China. That trade is estimated to be worth nearly $700 million per year. China has also filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization.

A coalition of meat companies and trade groups recently spoke at a hearing called by the DeLauro committee to clarify the Chinese issue. According to attorney Kevin Brosch, spokesman for the coalition that includes Tyson Foods, JBS, Cargill, Seaboard, Sanderson Farms, Pilgrim’s Pride, Smithfield Foods, Hormel Foods and other major industry players in addition to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, "We will not be able to avoid a serious trade confrontation with China if Congress does not reconsider" its ban. Brosch said the Obama Administration’s strategy to punish nations that raise standards-based barriers against U.S. exports will be undermined of the U.S.’s own policies violate world trading rules. He said USDA should evaluate the safety of China’s poultry before making a trade ruling. "We do not prejudge the outcome of that process and we respectfully suggest that this committee should not, either," Brosch testified.

What especially concerns Bryant and members of MICA, he told, "is that these problems impact all imports in terms of attitudes. If it’s coming from abroad, it must be suspect." He hastened to point out that the major meat exporters to the U.S. – Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay – all have spotless records this decade when it comes to product contamination issues. "The inspection programs in these countries are very comprehensive and sophisticated," he said.