Coming soon maybe to a grocery store near you — chicken from China.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) ruled recently that poultry processed in China can be sold in the United States. But first the birds must be born and raised in the U.S., Canada or Chile. Then they’re exported to China before being shipped back to the Americas.
Food-safety experts worry about the quality of chicken processed in a country notorious for avian influenza and food-borne illnesses. And they predict China will eventually seek to broaden the export rules to allow chickens born and raised there.
“I’ve never been to China, but my impression is it’s very polluted and the food isn’t always safe,” said Annie Hall, shopping recently at a Kroger’s supermarket in Atlanta. “We’ve got chicken farming and processing plants right up the road on I-85. We have enough here already. It doesn’t make sense to ship chickens all over the world.”
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Poultry officials in Georgia — the nation’s top broiler producer — say food-safety fears are overblown. They don’t expect a deluge of imported Chinese chickens.
Access to the American market is the quid pro quo, though, for a hoped-for explosion of exports to China.
“Believe it or not, it’s something we’ve been pushing for as an industry for several years,” said Jim Sumner, president of the Stone Mountain, Ga.-based USA Poultry and Egg Export Council. China “is one of our largest export markets and has the potential, by far, to be our largest market, and we don’t want to risk upsetting them.”
Food is just the latest commodity to succumb to globalization.
Chinese food exports to the United States — $3.3 billion worth in 2010, according to the USDA — grow by about 10 percent annually and are expected to remain on that trajectory for the next decade. Major exports to the U.S. include vegetables, fruits, grains, meat, fish and fruit juices.
Food & Water Watch, a consumer-advocacy group, earlier this year listed five questionable food imports from China: tilapia, cod, apple juice, processed mushrooms and garlic.
Tilapia and cod are raised in fish ponds and dosed with antibiotics and growth hormones. Imported Chinese apple juice reportedly contains three times the federal limit for arsenic in water. U.S. inspectors have also found tainted mushrooms and garlic.
China raised and shipped 80 percent of the tilapia consumed in this country in 2011, 51 percent of the cod, 49 percent of the apple juice, 34 percent of the processed mushrooms and 27 percent of the garlic.
Food-safety horror stories abound in China. More than 50,000 children were sickened and four died in 2008 after consuming baby formula tainted with melamine, an industrial chemical. Hong Kong authorities also discovered eggs contaminated with melamine.
USDA officials halted imports of Chinese shrimp, eel, catfish and carp in 2007 due to high levels of illegal antibiotics and chemicals. Three years later, officials seized thousands of pounds of Chinese honey after finding illegal antibiotics.
And this year, more than 500 dogs and a handful of cats died after eating jerky treats made of chicken, according to an investigation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., wrote recently that China’s “appallingly poor food-safety record … makes it deeply troubling that U.S. poultry will be processed in Chinese plants.”
The United States, of course, isn’t immune to food-safety problems. The USDA warned this month that salmonella may have sickened nearly 300 people who ate chicken processed in California.
And salmonella-contaminated peanuts, turned into peanut products at a South Georgia plant, killed nine people and sickened hundreds more in 2008.
Geographic and economic barriers stand in the way of a Chinese chicken onslaught. The birds must be raised and slaughtered in the U.S., Canada or Chile, then shipped halfway around the world to be processed, cooked and packaged before again crossing the Pacific Ocean. No raw chickens can be imported into the United States.
The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, with Congress’ blessing, lifted the export ban in late August. Four Chinese processors are eligible to export to the U.S.
Although USDA inspectors will not visit the Chinese plants, the exports must be inspected upon arrival in the United States.
“Consumers should know that any processed poultry from China will be produced under equivalent food safety standards and conditions as U.S. poultry,” the USDA said in an August statement.
“This is actually a foot in the door, a half-step towards their ultimate goal, which is that they’ll end up with approval of chickens originating in China,” said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch. “We suspect that this is the endgame.”
Sumner, with the export council, acknowledged that the Chinese will likely seek one day to export whole birds to the U.S. And there will be no way for U.S. consumers to know where their chicken comes from.
“Labeling is of great interest to consumers who want to know what’s in their food,” Lovera said. “And people aren’t comfortable already with China as a supplier of their food. Consumers are left out in the cold.”
Chicken companies, though, get access to a hot Chinese market. Exports to China had slumped badly after Beijing slapped punitive taxes on U.S. chickens in 2011. The World Trade Organization ruled the taxes illegal this summer. A month later, the U.S. opened its market to Chinese chickens.