Chinese Chicken, Big Ag’s Influence and What We Can Do

Last week, The Lunch Tray was dominated by discussion of the possible use in school meals of chicken processed in China.  Initially, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service website indicated that such chicken could not appear on school lunch trays but after my post last week, the agency changed its website to make clear that private vendors (which supply 80% of school food) can use Chinese-processed chicken, up to 49% of the total product, in processed food items sold to schools.

I want to wrap up this topic by answering some questions posed by readers and telling you how and when you can take action.  In drafting some of the Q & A below, I’m greatly indebted to Tony Corbo of Food and Water Watch, an advocacy group that has been working on the Chinese poultry issue for almost a decade.

chicken nuggetsHow is it economically feasible to ship chicken all the way to China and back, just to cook it?

Many readers were baffled by the economics of an arrangement in which U.S. poultry is sent to China and back for processing.  While a spokesperson for the National Chicken Council has said that few American poultry suppliers will take advantage of the opportunity, Toby Moore, a spokesman for the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council, has been quoted as saying that, due to lower labor costs in China,  “[t]here will probably be some company that can see some niche market” in the arrangement.  Tony Corbo of Food & Water Watch also noted that a Chinese processor could possibly sell locally parts of the chicken that are more desirable in China than in the United States, such as the feet and dark meat, and this could play into the economic feasibility of the arrangement.

Just how likely is it that Chinese-processed chicken will appear in school meals (or supermarkets)?

As noted above, the National Chicken Council has said that Chinese-processed chicken in the United States will be a rarity.  But we can’t know right now if that prediction is accurate.

If U.S. companies do start processing chicken in China, how will we know?

As noted in my prior posts, if Chinese-processed chicken is incorporated into another product such as soup or nuggets, the final product will not have to bear country-of-origin labeling indicating that the foreign processing took place.

However, although USDA has approved China for poultry processing, China must now identify to the USDA the companies interested in taking advantage of arrangement.  When and if that happens, the information will appear here.  Food & Water Watch will be monitoring the situation, as will I, and I will report anything I learn here on The Lunch Tray.

Is USDA going to also lift the export ban on raw, Chinese-raised and -slaughtered poultry?

Allowing China to process our poultry is widely seen as the first step toward ultimately allowing China to export into the United States its own raw poultry.

There are questions, however, regarding the timing of such a development.  On September 9, Politico reported that Al Almanza, administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, informed Politico that USDA inspectors have already started inspecting Chinese slaughtering facilities, “a key prerequisite for China to begin selling its own, homegrown chicken to the U.S.”   Two days later, however, Agriculture Secretary Vilsack rebutted this assertion.  According to the Congressional Quarterly Executive Briefing on Agriculture (subscription required) that day, Vilsack said:

“We need to be very clear about this because some publications have not been quite clear about precisely what we’re dealing with here. . . . What we have not authorized, and there is quite some time to go before we would even consider authorizing, is chickens raised in China and processed in China. That’s not coming to our stores and it won’t come until such time as we’re convinced that it doesn’t pose a safety threat to the American consumer.”

If there are any safety concerns at all, why are we opening our markets to Chinese poultry?

As noted in my first post on this issue, the opening up of our markets to Chinese-processed (and later, Chinese-raised) poultry is a calculated effort to induce China to open its lucrative beef market to U.S. beef, which is presently banned in China due to a mad cow scare in 2003.

But the beef industry is not alone in pushing for the importation of Chinese chicken into the United States.  With an eye toward a general (and profitable) liberalization of trade relations with China, the corporations and trade groups in support of this action constitute a veritable Who’s Who of American agriculture and food manufacturing: Monsanto, the Grocery Manufacturers’ Association, Cargill, Kraft, Tyson and many others, as well as representatives of the beef industry such as the American Meat Institute and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.  (Take a look at the list of signatories on these 2009 industry-drafted letters on Chinese poultry importation, written to President Obama and Agriculture Secretary Vilsack.)  It’s perhaps also worth noting that Cargill has recently opened a $250 million poultry processing plant in China.  

Are you going to start an online petition regarding this issue?

In light of my prior experience as a successful petitioner, several people have suggested that I start another petition on this issue.  This action seems premature to me at this time but I will certainly keep the option in mind, particularly if USDA moves toward allowing the importation of Chinese-raised poultry.

What can I do to express my concerns about Chinese-processed poultry and/or the importation of Chinese poultry?

There are two avenues for readers to express their concern about Chinese-processed and Chinese-raised poultry in the United States.

With respect to school food,USDA has informed me that school districts have, at the present time, the option to purchase food products that are 100% domestically grown and processed.   This is probably the most direct means of keeping Chinese chicken out of school food, though of course it requires action in every school district.  A more efficient approach would have each state’s school food authority (“SFA,” i.e., the state agency charged with administering the National School Lunch Program, usually the state department of education) expressly require that its districts purchase only domestically raised and processed meats.  I don’t know at the present time if this is possible, but if any Lunch Tray readers take the initiative and contact their state’s SFA to discuss this, I’d love to know what response you receive.  I’ll do the same with the Texas Department of Agriculture, which is my state’s SFA.

As for the importation of  Chinese-raised poultry, before this can happen, USDA will need to submit a proposed rule for public comment.  This will obviously be a critical time to let USDA know how consumers feel about this proposal, as a needed counterweight to the lobbying of powerful industries evidenced in the two letters cited above.  I will certainly let you know when and if USDA issues this proposed rule.

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  1. says

    The issue of Chinese chicken is closely linked to the USDA’s current effort to weaken the food safety rules on the production of chicken and turkey in the US. In a major gift to the food processing industry, the USDA wants to remove up to 75% of USDA inspectors with factory employees, speed up production rates, and assumed that with the fast rate and lack of inspection that all the chicken and turkey is contaminated with pus, scabs, feces, and rotten flesh and wash all the chicken and turkey in anti-microbial chlorine. Recent reports question if the decontamination chemicals will protect us from e-coli and salmonella or merely make them undetectable during testing. How does this relate to Chinese chicken? Once the food safety standards have been lowered, importation of Chinese chicken (including chicken produced in China) is more practical. USDA spokespeople have said this is their goal.
    Contact the White House (when the shut down is over) and ask them to stop this terrible rule to weaken food safety in meat.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Hi Anne: I mentioned the weakening of our poultry inspection system in one of my posts last week on the Chinese chicken issue but I appreciate this additional information and the link to your organization.

  2. Will says

    Funny how people care more about where the chicken comes from than the fact that they are abused and killed and injected with all sorts of nasty chemicals to fight off infections from being in close quarters and to make them grow faster, not to mention increasing heart disease and cancer.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Will: I think part of the reason people care about where the chicken comes from is precisely because the farming practices in China may be questionable. (Read here about how farmers there grossly overused antibiotics in producing chicken for KFC in China.) But I can tell from your comment that you’re opposed to all factory farming and meat consumption in general, which is a valid position. I became a vegetarian almost two years ago for basically the same reasons. But for those who do want to continue eating meat, it’s understandable that they’d like to see it produced and slaughtered in a safe manner.

  3. Steve says

    Whether we like it or not, we live in a global economy for the trade of goods and commodities of all kinds. And just because China’s regulations may not currently comply with US standards, that doesn’t mean they can’t make the necessary changes to improve their processing techniques. I’ve never been in a poultry slaughter house in China, so I can’t speak to how their safety standards are complied with or enforced. And I don’t think its fair for anybody without expertise or first hand knowledge, to have an influence in the decisions that are made regarding trade relations.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Steve: It’s interesting that you mention “influence” here, because it’s openly acknowledged that the push to approve chicken imports and processing from China is primarily due to the considerable influence of the beef industry, which is eager to have access to one of the world’s largest markets for beef. Should that sort of profit-motivated influence come into play when consumer safety is involved? Also, you mention “China’s regulations” but concerns about China’s food safety practices have less to do with their regulations on the books, and more to do with the lax/corrupt government oversight in ensuring that such regulations are adhered to. But I do agree with you that we live in a global economy and the eventual importation of Chinese poultry may be a fait accompli.

      • Steve says

        Perhaps its a fine line, but I think there is a distinction between encouragement and influence. I agree with you and would like for a decision to be made, based on science and public safety, not on politics. Perhaps this is where we won’t agree, but I believe the people who will ultimately make this decision, do have public safety in our best interest and if improvements or changes need to be made in China’s slaughter system, that will be accomplished so that both countrys can benefit.

        • Bettina Elias Siegel says

          Steve: I do hope you’re right and I don’t doubt the sincerity of the individuals involved. But even some USDA inspectors themselves have expressed alarm over plans to change our current poultry inspection system domestically, and other experts have questioned whether our evaluation of foreign food safety “equivalency” is reliable. Those are matters of real concern, given China’s demonstrated, egregious disregard for food safety on numerous occasions.


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