For those following this week’s discussion of Chinese-processed chicken in the National School Lunch Program, I wanted to share the latest news.
After “thanking” me on Twitter for bringing the matter to its attention, yesterday morning USDA corrected the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s website to make clear (at least to a reader who parses the disclosure carefully) that Chinese-processed chicken can in fact find its way into school meals. This follows a period of almost a month in which the site gave a blanket “no”answer to the question, “Will chicken processed in China be included in school lunches?,” and a period of two weeks in which I was asking pointed questions about that “no” answer.
The new Q & A reads as follows:
Will chicken processed in China be included in school lunches?
The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service purchases approximately 20 percent of food for the National School Lunch Program on behalf of schools. The product purchased by AMS must be of 100 percent domestic origin, meaning that they are produced and processed from products which were produced, raised, and processed only in the United States.
Schools also make independent purchases on the commercial market to meet the needs of their students. These purchases are governed by section 12(n) of the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act (42 U.S.C. 1760), which requires participating schools to purchase domestically grown and processed foods, to the maximum extent practicable.
A domestic commodity/product is defined as “an agricultural commodity that is produced in the United States and a food product that is processed in the United States substantially using agricultural commodities that are produced in the United States.” Schools can consider a product domestic if it is processed in the United States and comprised of at least 51 percent domestic ingredients Schools have the option of using only products that are 100 percent domestically grown and processed.
Translation: as I revealed earlier this week, if a product sold to a school district by a private vendor is comprised of 49% or less Chinese-processed chicken,* it is considered a “domestic” product and may be freely purchased even under the “Buy American” rule imposed on districts. And, by USDA’s own admission, around 80% of school food is sourced through private vendors, so the appearance of Chinese-processed chicken on school trays is a real possibility.
What the new Q & A does not tell parents, but which I revealed in my first post on the issue, is that Chinese-processed chicken in any percentage may be used in school supper programs (which will feed an estimated 21 million children by 2015), in meals served by day care centers and even by schools for breakfasts and lunches — but in the latter two cases, only if it comes to pass that Chinese-processed chicken becomes reliably cheaper than domestically processed chicken.
However, as I also noted in my first post about this issue, what remains of greater concern is the likelihood that USDA will soon lift the export ban on raw Chinese poultry, a commodity that could well be cheaper than U.S. raw poultry. If that scenario comes to pass, Chinese-raised and -slaughtered poultry could be used on a widespread basis in school meals, with no restrictions on ingredient percentages. Given China’s abysmal food safety record, and given potential weaknesses in our own poultry inspection system (a system that USDA is presently trying to downsize), that’s a cause for real worry, in my opinion.
So, what now? The overwhelming response to my posts regarding Chinese chicken in school meals indicates to me that parents care deeply about this issue. I’m mulling over whether we, collectively, have any recourse and will share my thoughts in the coming days.
* Many of you have asked me about the economics of shipping U.S.-raised and -slaughtered poultry to China and back for processing, and why this arrangement was approved by USDA in the first place. I’ll have more on that question in a post next week.