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Foreign PolicyGovernmentHealthOpinionPolitics

USDA Plays “Chinese” Chicken With America’s Health

In August, 2013, The New York Times reported that “The Department of Agriculture on Friday approved four Chinese poultry processors to begin shipping a limited amount of meat to the United States…the companies (were permitted) to export only cooked poultry products from birds raised in the United States and Canada. But critics predicted that the government would eventually expand the rules, so that chickens and turkeys bred in China could end up in the American market.” Prophetic words.

Back in August, The New York Times reported that China didn’t exactly have the best track record going when it came to food safety. China has been … um … unhurried in reporting, for example, deadly outbreaks of avian flu. Even The Times had reservations about allowing such lackadaisical importers into American markets, even for simply processing chickens raised in North America: “In recent years, imports have been the source of contamination, prompting broader worries about food safety.” Such fears were well-founded. Because the chickens were raised in America, then were to be cooked and processed at four plants in China, no labeling was required to identify the country-of-origin for poultry reentering the United States. Chinese processed chicken could be found anywhere from chicken soup to fast-food nuggets.

Why was the export and re-importation of chicken happening in the first place? According to The Times: “…the U.S.D.A. moved to allow imports of chicken from China, which has banned imports of American beef since 2003 over worries about mad cow disease.” As if cooking and processing chicken intended for America wasn’t bad enough, now, the USDA is upping the ante.

On Sunday, CBS News reported that the USDA is “a step closer” to importing raw chicken, raised and processed in China, to America. It even has the likes of liberal Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), up in arms: “China has a terrible record on health, safety, and chickens are one of the things that need the most care and inspections’ … Schumer called the plan a huge change in policy, and a big mistake. ‘China has been a massive source of food poisoning here in America for years,’ he said.”

Even a broken clock is correct, twice a day.

Aside from giving China importation rights that would negatively impact American farmers and jobs, why would the USDA do such a thing? The answer is “Because it can.” Typical of the Gordian Knot that is the United States government, the USDA is, for all intents and purposes, independent. It answers to no one. And it is bloated; gargantuan, encompassing, among many other departments listed on the USDA website:
— Agricultural Marketing Service
— Agricultural Research Service
— Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service
— Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion
— Economic Research Service
— Farm Service Agency
— Food and Nutrition Service
— Food Safety and Inspection Service
— Foreign Agricultural Service
— Forest Service

That is only the first ten departments. The site lists seven more plus 17 additional departmental “offices.”

Congress can, technically, override USDA actions but the last time that happened was … well … never. Congress has proven itself less than willing to naysay any other governmental entity. It would be surprising if this impending decision was handled any differently. Schumer said a USDA report to Congress indicated aspects of the Chinese slaughter system to be equivalent to that of the U.S. In a hasty attempt to walk back their assessment, the USDA said it is “legally obligated to review requests from countries waiting to export, but it has not finalized its audit of China.” Hold that sigh of relief. “Not yet” is the operative phrase.

In a statement to Congress, the USDA said:“(The USDA has) not found China’s poultry slaughter system to be equivalent (to the U.S.) and therefore poultry slaughtered in China is not allowed to be imported to the United States … The U.S. food supply is among the safest in the world, the Food Safety and Inspection Service is dedicated to maintaining that status.” Seriously? Whose status are they dedicated to?

Perhaps the USDA requires a cautionary tale. One doesn’t have to think too far back to remember the pet treats that were in supermarkets, everywhere. The treats were chicken-based and were found to be responsible for the deaths of over 2,500 dogs and cats. They were, coincidentally, imported from China. That is food for thought.

Marilyn Assenheim

Marilyn Assenheim was born and raised in New York City. She spent a career in healthcare management although she probably should have been a casting director. Or a cowboy. A serious devotee of history and politics, Marilyn currently lives in the NYC metropolitan area.