Catching up to this news, which dropped quietly just before the holiday weekend: In a first, the US Department of Agriculture has given permission for chicken products processed in the People’s Republic of China to be sold in the United States without labeling that would indicate where the chicken products came from.
The news was broken by Politico, whose writers obtained USDA documents before the agency released them, and then followed up by the New York Times, with some no-holds-barred analysis by Bloomberg Businessweek.
If you’ve been reading for a while, you’ll know that food safety in China is well below US standards. So it may be a surprise to hear that birds grown and slaughtered outside that country, but cooked and made into products in it, would be acceptable for sale here. Especially since the plants that USDA has approved for sales into the US market will not have USDA inspectors on site.
Here is the USDA notice, in the form of an audit issued by the Food Safety and Inspection Service.
This development fascinates me; it touches so many issues that have been percolating through food production and food safety.
First, there’s the decade of maneuvering between the US and China over meat exports in both directions. China, along with a number of other Asian nations, blocked US beef imports in 2003 after a Washington state cow tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, “mad cow” disease. Then in 2004, avian influenza flared in Asia; the US blocked imports of Chinese poultry, and in 2009 China brought a restraint-of-trade action against the US in front of the World Trade Organization. It won in 2010 — at about the same time that it accused the US of dumping chicken parts at below-market prices and slapped American poultry with tariffs of more than 100 percent.
The audit process that approved the Chinese plants began after the WTO decision; the USDA inspected, asked for corrective actions, inspected again, and finally approved the deal on Aug. 30. The audit allows China to sell back to the US only poultry that was raised and slaughtered in the US, or (as the audit documents say) a country “that FSIS determined to have a poultry slaughter inspection system equivalent to the US system.” But the magazine World Poultry notes: “Experts suggest that this could be the first step towards allowing China to export its own domestic chickens to the US.”
Second, there are the most recent moves around ensuring that imported food is safe. Most of the food consumed in the US is overseen not by USDA but by the Food and Drug Administration, which has been struggling for years with guaranteeing the safety of imports. Reports by the Government Accountability Office, the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Pew Charitable Trusts and Center for Science in the Public Interest all found that the FDA could not keep up with the task; estimating that its inspectors were able to lay hands on no more than 2 percent of imported foods. The massive Food Safety Modernization Act tried to revamp the system for policing imports, which make up about 15 percent of the US diet; last July the FDA proposed regulations under that new law which said the best way forward was for companies handling imports to police their foreign suppliers themselves. The FDA rule is not final, but the USDA China audit seems to be following a similar pattern.
Third, there’s the already-contentious topic, “country of origin labeling,” known as COOL for short. The USDA has been implementing COOL for the past few years, requiring that retailers label meats, fish and shellfish, fruits and vegetables, and some nuts if they originated outside the US. Much of the US meat industry has been fighting COOL in court; the most recent hearing (covered by Food Safety News) was Aug. 27. Yet according to the USDA, the Chinese processing allowed under the new audit elides COOL requirements, because — no matter what is done in processing — the chicken meat originated in the US.
Last, there’s how neatly this spotlights the global nature of food production, especially the way that inexpensive transport has changed how food is raised and made. Just to reiterate what’s going to be allowed: chickens raised in the US (or “equivalent” countries), and slaughtered in the country where they were grown, are going to be shipped across the globe to be turned into processed products, and then shipped back to be sold. Developing-world labor, and containerized shipping (so well explained by Rose George in the new book Ninety Percent of Everything), are both so inexpensive that it is cheaper to send a chicken nugget around the world to be ground, formed and breaded than to do all that in the place where the chicken was raised.