Chinese Chicken in School Meals: USDA Responds But Doesn’t Change Misleading Answer

chicken nuggetsIn yesterday’s Lunch Tray post, I explained to readers how chicken processed in China could easily wind up in school meals, despite a Q & A on the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) website which gives a “no”answer in response the question “Will chicken processed in China be included in school lunches?”

I’m pleased to report that the post was widely shared on social media yesterday, with cross-posts on Civil Eats and Food Safety News, as well as retweets from food policy and media heavyweights like Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Bill Marler, Stephanie Strom, Melanie Warner and Marion Nestle.

USDA’s press office responded late in the day yesterday.  Here is the agency’s blog post in full:

In response to a recent report about chicken served in the National School Lunch Program, I wanted to provide some clarification.  Food safety is one of our highest priorities, and USDA is committed to ensuring that food served through the National School Lunch Program is both healthy and safe.

Schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program receive some of their foods through the USDA, and the rest is purchased on the commercial market.  USDA is only involved in the purchases that are made through our program, and all of the food provided through USDA is 100 percent domestically grown and produced.

When schools make their own purchases, the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act requires them to purchase domestically grown and processed foods, “to the maximum extent practicable.” Schools are allowed to consider a product domestic if it was processed in the United States, and over half of the ingredients are considered domestic.  Schools have the option, if they choose, to only purchase products that are 100 percent domestically grown and processed.

It is also important to know that all domestic and imported poultry must meet rigorous USDA standards before it can reach the public.  USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has a stringent inspection system in place, which includes increased inspections at port-of-entry and annual audits of China’s system for processed chicken.  For more information about the inspection of imported chicken, I recommend that you check out this blog post published yesterday by Al Almanza, the FSIS Administrator, on Ensuring Safety of Imported Processed Chicken from China.

– See more at:

You’ll note that nothing in the foregoing response contradicts the facts laid out in my post.  USDA-supplied commodities are domestic, but schools can and do purchase food items from private vendors.  And, as I learned in my investigation, items from private vendors may contain Chinese-processed chicken, up to 49% of the total product, without violating the “Buy American” rule imposed on school districts.

I’d first like to focus on USDA’s reassurances that “all domestic and imported poultry must meet rigorous USDA standards before it can reach the public.”  That’s comforting until one remembers that, on the domestic side, USDA is actually involved in a highly controversial effort to reduce the number of government poultry inspectors by turning inspection duties over to the poultry companies themselves.  This proposal has been sharply criticized by some USDA poultry inspectors, who claim in affidavits that it will put the public at greater risk for foodborne illnesses, and USDA’s own methodology in defending the new procedures has been questioned by the Government Accountability Office.  As recently as three days ago, the Safe Food Coalition sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urging a reconsideration of the proposal.   And when it comes to the inspection of Chinese-processed chicken, many serious questions have been raised about whether the public’s safety will be adequately protected, as laid out fully in this recent letter from Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown to Vilsack.

But what is most troubling to me is that, despite the widespread attention yesterday, and despite my questioning of the agency over a two week period starting on September 11th, as of this writing the FSIS’s website still provides a “no” answer to the question “Will chicken processed in China be included in school lunches?”

I am a former lawyer with some food regulatory experience, and after three and a half years of working on school food reform in Houston ISD, I’m relatively well-versed in how school food programs operate.  Yet even I had to email and call the agency several times and parse the regulations carefully, including debating them with my fellow-lawyer husband, to finally figure out that the “no” answer is incomplete and misleading.  One should not need a law degree, special school food expertise, and a lot of extra time on one’s hands just to know what one’s children might be eating at lunch.

At this point, FSIS’s failure to provide a full and correct disclosure on its website is simply indefensible.

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  1. Lunch Lady Jane Doe says

    We divert USDA commodity chicken and purchase chicken from private companies. Yesterday,we contacted both of our private providers, Tyson and Perdue. Both companies stated in emails to me that none of the chicken they sell to my district is raised or processed in China.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Lunch Lady Jane Doe: It’s great that your district is diligent on this issue but keep in mind that the processing arrangement with China has not yet been put into operation, to my knowledge. You may want to specify in your RFPs that chicken must be processed domestically, so that if the situation with Tyson or Perdue changes, even without your knowledge, you’ll be protected.

  2. Martha says

    Your work in overseeing how food is produced and sold is commendable, I appreciate your factfinding, your insight, your understanding and your knowledge more than you can imagine. It never ceases to amaze me how deep we have to dig to find the truth. Thanks again for all you do, as a veteran school meals director I can’t begin to tell you how disappointed I am in the lack of “response” you are receiving from USDA and the other organizations. Sort of frightening to say the least.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Martha: Thank you for that kind comment. It reall means a lot to me, especially coming from a school food professional.


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