Chicken From China: USDA Will Allow Chinese Poultry Into The U.S., But Is It Safe To Eat?

By Josh Lieberman on September 5, 2013 5:01 PM EDT

chickens eggs
The USDA announced last week that they will allow Chinese poultry imports. Above, chickens at a farm in Hangzhou, China, are fed unsaleable eggs in April 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

The United States will allow four Chinese poultry processors to ship chicken to the U.S., the Department of Agriculture quietly announced on the Friday of Labor Day weekend. The new USDA rules will only allow certain types of chicken to be imported from China. The imported chicken must have been slaughtered in the U.S. or in a country that is allowed to slaughter chicken for the U.S. market, and the chicken must have been "heat-treated/cooked" in China.

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After inspectors from the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service audited Chinese chicken processors to determine whether their processing "remains equivalent to that of the United States, with the ability to produce products that are safe, wholesome, unadulterated, and properly labeled," the agency gave its approval in a final audit report [PDF] dated August 30, 2013.

That means that Chinese chicken nuggets, for instance, could soon be on American dinner tables, and they would not be required to have labels indicating that they were processed in China. Though the USDA has recently implemented "country of origin labeling," or COOL, which tells consumers whether meats, fish, fruits and vegetables and certain nuts came from outside of the U.S. But since the chickens will be slaughtered in the U.S. or in an approved chicken-slaughter country before being processed in China, the chicken's origin is technically the U.S. -- and thus doesn't meet the COOL requirements.

That's not so cool, some are saying. Questions have been raised about the lack of a labelling requirement, China's food safety record in general and even the timing of the announcement.

"It's common practice for government agencies to release information they hope to sneak past consumers on Friday afternoons before a holiday weekend," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of the nonprofit organization Food & Water Watch.

Hauter also noted that China has long wanted to export chicken to the U.S. In exchange, China may once again allow U.S. beef to be imported to China, something that has been prohibited since 2003. That line of reasoning is echoed in BusinessWeek, where Adam Minter argues that while it's a "reasonable goal" to allow U.S. beef into China and Chinese chicken into the U.S., the USDA shouldn't allow it "at the expense of a safe U.S. food supply." As Minter notes, "Consumers will have no way to tell if those chicken nuggets in the supermarket freezer were processed in the U.S. or in China."

The new regulations would also not require that USDA safety inspectors be present in Chinese poultry processing plants. The Chinese plants themselves be responsible for verifying that the poultry they process was slaughtered in the U.S. or in a U.S.-approved nation.

"The audit released today erases neither the fact that past inspections revealed unsanitary conditions at China's poultry processing plants nor the fact that U.S. inspectors will not be onsite at these plants going forward to ensure the exported products are safe," said Rosa De Lauro, a Democratic Congresswoman from Connecticut, in a statement

In the understatement of the year, the New York Times notes that "China does not have the best track record for food safety."

Astute readers may recall the 2011 incident where 11 people in China died from tainted vinegar which had apparently been stored in barrels previously used to hold antifreeze. Or back in 2008, when melamine, a plastic used in products like white boards, was found in Chinese milk and infant formula products, killing six babies and making 330,000 people ill. Readers without such long memories may recall the incident earlier this year when a Chinese rat-meat ring was busted for selling rat, fox and mink meat mixed with additives like gelatin, or readers may remember just a few months ago when 46-year-old chicken feet -- from 1967 -- were seized from a food storage site in Guanxi, China.

China passed its very first food safety law in 2009.

READ MORE:

Dead Fish In China: 220,000 Pounds Of Poisoned Fish Surface In Fuhe River

Mars Food Researchers Emerge From HI-SEAS Dome After 4-Month Space Cooking Experiment [VIDEO]

Red Yogurt Bugs: Dannon Slammed For Using Insect-Based Food Coloring In Yogurt Products [REPORT]

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