Very quietly, and without a peep from the mainstream media, the United States has made it possible for chicken to be processed in China and then sold to you here in America – without a label identifying it as “processed in China.”
This past spring, the US Department of Agriculture conducted inspections in several Chinese processing plants with the goal of making it possible to allow foreign producers to send processed chicken to American markets for sale. Then, just days ago in early September, the green light was given to four processing plants to begin processing and exporting chicken  to America, without USDA inspectors on site.
At first, China will only be able to process chicken that’s been slaughtered in the United States or in other equally certified countries. So, that chicken nugget you’re about to feed your children? It very well could have once been a chicken that lived and was slaughtered here in the United States, but was sent around the world for processing – crossing the Pacific Ocean twice.
Since 2004, exports of Chinese chicken and other in-country processed chicken were put on hold due to outbreaks of bird flu and other food safety issues. However, even amid new outbreaks of bird flu leading to human deaths in 2013, the USDA says that all outstanding issues and concerns have since been resolved, and that China may proceed with processing in the four approved facilities.
Several advocacy groups have petitioned the USDA to ban the sale of Chinese-processed chicken, or at the very least, require companies to label their products as “processed in China.” However, the USDA has rejected all of these petitions and has no plans to require these processed chicken products to be labeled.
Additionally, some advocacy groups say that the USDA’s recent move to allow chicken to be processed in China is just a part of a bigger political issue that’s in play.
By allowing China to process US certified chicken, critics say the USDA hopes to sweet talk China into lifting its bans on US exports of beef and pork products. It “just so happens” that in 2013, China’s demand for beef imports has soared, yet the United States continues to be shut out of the market due to old concerns of American beef and mad cow disease from 2003. Again, the USDA denies all claims of playing politics, and insists that its recent move is a good one for American consumers.
But it does make one wonder … could we really be trading our own food safety in exchange for a bigger slice of the beef trade market? As the saying goes, money talks, and chickens get sent to China for processing.
- 2003: China blocks all US beef imports after one cow in Washington state tests positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, aka “mad cow disease.”
- 2004: Avian influenza, or “bird flu,” rages in Asia. The United States blocks imports of Chinese poultry.
- 2009: China brings a restraint-of-trade action against the USA
- 2010: China slaps a hefty tariff (over 100 percent) on all American poultry, accusing the US of selling chicken at below-market prices.
- 2013: China has record-breaking sales of beef in the first two quarters of 2013 (up over 900 percent from the year before). US beef still not allowed for import.
- 2013: USDA approves allowing four plants to process US raised and certified chicken.
So, what’s the problem with chicken processed in China?
Food safety measures in China are sub-par at best, and the country has been no stranger to food illness controversy in recent years. Back in 2011, 11 people died and over a hundred were sickened when it was found that vinegar which had been processed in China had been stored in barrels that once contained antifreeze . Add this to the growing list of Chinese food scandals such as glow-in the-dark meat , evidence of growth accelerators in exploding watermelon crops, use of bleach in mushroom crop processing, and melamine-tainted milk, just to name a few scandals in recent years.
The US poultry industry remained guarded in its response to the USDA’s recent announcement. Safety is a top concern for the poultry industry, and the industry is pushing for 100 percent testing on all products processed in China.
Additionally, the industry is concerned about the economics of sending US-raised chicken to China for processing. There are real fears and concerns that this move by the USDA will eventually open the door to allowing China to send its own born-and-raised poultry to the USA for sale, further narrowing the already slim bottom line for American chicken farmers.
Despite the USDA’s promises to closely monitor these four processing plants and test all processed chicken coming out of China, many food safety advocates aren’t buying into it. Rep. Rosa De Lauro, a Democrat from Connecticut, called the USDA’ s recent decision “deeply worrisome to American consumers.” Her statement:
“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. … Sadly, business interests, which are currently also attacking country-of-origin labeling so consumers do not even know where the meat they are consuming is coming from, are trumping the public interest.”
Another potential problem – the FDA
Most of the food we consume here in the United States is not tested or overseen by the USDA, which is the agency granting China the right to process chicken. Instead, the job of checking food imports is handled by the Food and Drug Administration.
And the FDA is no stranger to made-in-China scandals, either. (Anyone remember the 2007 toxic toothpaste  scandal?)
In recent years, the FDA has had a hard time keeping up with the task of inspecting imported foods. Reports by several agencies, including the Office of the Inspector General and Department of Health and Human Services, found that FDA inspectors were only able to lay their hands on approximately 2 percent of all imported foods , as Off The Grid News reported. And it looks like we can now add processed chicken to the ever-growing list of foods that need to be inspected by the FDA.
Scary? You bet.
Just slap a label on it. While that would seem downright practical and easy to do, at this time, it’s not going to be done, at least not voluntarily. “Country of Origin Labeling,” or COOL, has been a hot topic in American food culture for several years now as many industry giants have fought COOL restrictions in court, and have won on several occasions.
The USDA requires that retailers label meats, fish, shellfish, fruits, vegetables and nuts that have originated outside of the United States. However, this new processed-in-China chicken may fall through the cracks as the chicken itself did not originate in another country. It just traveled around the world and back again for processing. And you, the consumer, will have no way of knowing where it was processed unless you do your own detective work. (And good luck with that!)
A quick recap
The long and short of it is this: Chickens born and raised in the good old USA (or “equivalent” countries) will be slaughtered here, then packed up and shipped halfway across the globe to be turned into nuggets and other processed products, then shipped back to the USA to be sold. With no rules requiring the chicken have a “processed in China” label. Somehow, we are supposed to believe, that this newly approved process is going to cost the poultry and food industry less money, be 100 percent safe for the consumer, and is in no way playing games for political gain? Is it really cheaper to send a chicken nugget around the world to be processed than it is to do it right here on American soil? Are we really telling China that we don’t trust them to raise healthy chickens for us to consume, but we’ll trust them to process our own chicken? It would seem that is exactly what the USDA is saying. For one reason or another. You decide.