BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – A decision by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow American-raised chicken to be processed in China has triggered opposition from lawmakers and consumer watchdogs.
New York Senator Charles Schumer, D-New York, has registered his opposition with public statements and a letter last year to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack.
“It is outrageous,” said Schumer during a recent interview. “China has the poorest record of food safety of any major power. They don’t seem to care about safety.”
Schumer was reacting to a decision by the USDA that China’s system for processing chickens is equivalent to the US. The equivalency designation is the first step in a process that is expected to result in chickens raised in the United States to be sent frozen to China where they would be processed into nuggets or soup and returned to the U.S. for sale.
Currently, no chickens have been sent to China but that could change any day.
“It’s just the almighty dollar and to allow chickens to be either processed or even worse raised in China and exported here is an outrage,” Schumer added.
It’s the way the US was in the 1880’s – senior scientist with Consumer Reports on China’s food safety system
A USDA spokeswoman said the agency is currently reviewing paperwork submitted by China. Once it is approved “China can begin to export processed poultry products from an approved source to the United States.” Besides the United States, other approved sources of chickens are Canada and Chile.
The decision has generated opposition among consumer advocates.
“China’s food safety system is not equivalent to our system and it worries us that the USDA would say they are,” said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, a non-profit consumer group.
“A number of groups have been upset with the USDA over this because they claim those systems are not equivalent in China,” said Michael Hansen, senior scientist with Consumers Union, the policy arm of Consumer Reports. “Here in the U.S. the law states, for example, with chickens every single carcass has to be inspected by a federal employee. That is not necessarily happening in China.”
Critics say what’s worse for consumers is that those products won’t be labeled because the country of origin labeling requirement does not cover processed food.
“One of the many flaws in this plan is that consumers aren’t going to know when this stuff starts hitting the market. They’re not going to be able to tell them apart,” Lovera said.
Sending frozen chickens to China for processing may just be the first step.
“We’ve heard that the FDA may now actually allow chickens raised in China to be exported to the US. This is awful,” said Schumer.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York is a member of the Senate’s Agriculture Committee.
“I have very serious concerns about the quality of food coming out of China,” she said. “I don’t think the level of inspection and requirements there are as stringent as ours.”
China first asked for approval to export poultry to the United States in 2004 resulting in audits for poultry processing and another for poultry slaughter. Poultry processing was initially approved in 2006 but Congress passed a ban that remained in place through 2009.
China restarted the approval process in December, 2010 resulting in the most recent decision. China is already exporting tons of food to the United States. In the last two decades, China’s exports to the US have grown from a trickle to more than 2 million tons.
China is now a major supplier of popular food items like tilapia, apple juice and garlic. But recent food scandals have hurt China’s reputation with American consumers.
Six Chinese babies died and thousands more were sickened in 2008 from formula laced with melamine, an industrial chemical. Melamine-contaminated dog food and treats was also blamed for the death and illness of thousands of pets in the US.
Just this summer an undercover TV report showed a plant that supplied meat to American fast food restaurants in China using long expired meat. A worker can be seen picking up meat from the floor and adding it back to the mix. The plant supplied meat to American fast food companies operating in China including McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut.
While the plant is located in China, it is owned by a subsidiary of OSI Group, an international food supplier that is based in Aurora, Ill. The company on July 21 issued a statement saying it was “appalled by the report and is dealing with the issue directly and quickly.” Sheldon Lavin, company CEO and owner of the OSI Group also issued a statement saying that what occurred at the Husi was “completely unacceptable. I will not try and defend it or explain it. It was terribly wrong, and I am appalled that it ever happened in the company that I own.”
Chinese authorities arrested six employees. The plant halted operations. The company cut 340 workers saying that the company has suffered losses and investigations are ongoing.
China’s food safety system is not equivalent to our system – assistant director of Food and Water Watch
“If they poison our dogs and our animals and we have to do recalls on foods we feed our pets what are we going to be feeding our children?” said Anna Montgomery, of Kenmore.
China’s track record doesn’t surprise Hansen who visited China two years ago to advise the Chinese on upgrading their food safety system.
“It’s the way the US was in the 1880’s,” said Hansen. “It’s basically a free market run amuck with hardly any government oversight because they don’t have the infrastructure to be able to enforce these laws.”
The Chinese government says it is working to modernize its food safety system. Just how much they have to do is detailed in a new book by two Chinese academics entitled “Food Safety in China: A Comprehensive Review.”
Regarding exports, the study found that food recalled or detained for excessive pesticide and veterinary drug residues had increased from 2009 to 2011.
“Excessive pesticide and veterinary drug residues are still the most important factor negatively affecting food exports from China,” said the study by Linhai Wu and Dian Zhu.
Excessive pesticide residues in vegetables, fish and meat “are a particularly prominent problem in food exports in China,” the study added.
The US Food and Drug Administration opened a China office in 2008 to do inspections and collaborate with Chinese regulators.
“There are about a dozen offices internationally but I don’t believe they’re really a significant inspection force,” said Carl Nielsen, former director of the FDA’s division of import operations.
The FDA declined to do an interview but in an email said that while “significant steps” are needed to strengthen China’s food safety system “we’re encouraged by the progress that’s been made thus far.”
The FDA added: “When our inspectors arrived in 2007 to investigate firms involved in problems related to melamine in pet food, they arrived to plants that had been shuttered. Now, Chinese inspectors regularly join us on food inspections throughout China.” The FDA said it was also encouraged by the steps taken by Chinese regulators since 2008: the revision of China’s Food Safety Law, the 2013 consolidation of food-safety responsibilities, enhanced communications and collaboration with the FDA and interest in training with the FDA.
Between 2011 and 2013, the FDA averaged about 72 food inspections per year in China, the FDA statement said.
In “Food Safety in China,” the authors said tens of thousands of foods in China are produced by more than 400,000 food producers and processors.
At the US border, inspectors rejected 124,000 food products since 2002. China ranked third at seven percent behind Mexico and India.
Despite the melamine scandal, FDA data shows that foods from Chinese companies continue to be rejected at the U.S. border because of melamine contamination.
Just this September inspectors stopped shipments of bread, cookies and chocolate containing melamine. For shopper Jonathan Allen, the idea of allowing China to cook and process chickens for Americans “just doesn’t make any sense.”
“It seems like the government doesn’t always have our best interests in their minds,” Allen told News 4.
At Niagara County Produce, a sign tells shoppers that all chickens are hatched, raised and harvested in the USA.
Chris Selk, who is the assistant deli manager at that store says his customers regularly ask the origin of the chickens for sale. Based on what they tell him, he says they won’t buy chickens from China. They want to see a USDA stamp of approval.
“I don’t think people would buy it,” said Selk. “I myself wouldn’t and I shouldn’t tell you that. I would feel very leery in view of the bad publicity they’ve had.”
The National Chicken Council which represents the industry supports opening the U.S. market to processed chicken from China.
“The National Chicken Council and its members support the concept of free and fair trade,” said Tom Super, spokesman. “We export more than 20 percent of our production to other countries and rely on our partners to treat us fairly. Our industry’s ability to meet and exceed both domestic and international standards has granted us unparalleled access to foreign markets and solidified our ability to compete effectively and efficiently on a global scale .
“Therefore, we believe any country that is able to meet the stringent safety standards set by USDA should be able to compete in a marketplace free of protectionism and artificial trade barriers. In order to be effective, free trade must operate as a two-way street. If we expect fair treatment from trading partners based on sound science and analysis, it is only right that we afford our partners the same fairness.
The council notes that 99 percent of all chicken consumed in the United States is domestically hatched, raised and processed “and we don’t expect that to change any time soon.”
As for chickens processed in foreign countries, the council pointed out that there are no U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors present in any of the 34 countries approved to export meat to the United States just as there are not foreign inspectors in U.S. plants.