USDA Comes (Mostly) Clean Re: Chinese-Processed Chicken in School Meals — What Now?

For those following this week’s discussion of Chinese-processed chicken in the National School Lunch Program, I wanted to share the latest news.

chicken nuggetsAfter “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.



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  1. says

    Now we need USDA to work on making sure processed Chinese chicken does not end up in school lunch & hope they do a better job than with pink slime. Time for another petition?

  2. reggie says

    What is the timetable that the USDA is working with. What are the actions that we as parents as well as consumers must do now to derail this current policy which doesn’t make any sense to me. I think it is a poor stategy 14000 miles chicken nuggets to hopefully lure the Chinese government to start buying US beef exports.

  3. Francine Brooks says

    This is silly. Why are you alarming us over a remote possibility of chicken handled by Chinese entering our American food chain when other very real threats exist? What about Vietnamese or Mexican? We need to be careful about singling out any social group for persecution. Recently CDC released a report making it clear American chicken is not so great and Kosher chicken was found to be the most dangerous of the lot

    What is the chance any of this organic or Kosher chicken might be slipped into a school menu? Shouldn’t we be cranking the air raid sirens over this proven potentially deadly Kosher food? I would hate for my darling granddaughter to die a ghastly death from flesh eating bacteria contracted from Kosher chicken fingers she was served at her school cafeteria!

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      I suspect your comment is disingenuous and intended to provoke, but if you’re truly worried that a child will die a “ghastly death from flesh eating bacteria contracted from Kosher chicken fingers she was served at her school cafeteria,” I think you can sleep soundly at night, Francine. To the extent public schools try to accommodate the dietary needs of religious students (which they are not legally required to do), typically this is done through the provision of a vegetarian meal. More here. Moreover, the antibiotic resistance observed in Kosher chicken samples in the cite you linked to was attributed to the fact that “use of antibiotics in the kosher production chain is common and . . . may be more intensive than use of antibiotics among conventional, organic, or RWA practices.” If that’s the case, shouldn’t we then be particularly worried about documented instances of the gross overuse of antibiotics in Chinese poultry?

  4. terre says

    I respect and admire what you are doing. The problem seems to be that no solutions are offered. When school boards and whole cities are refusing to even consider putting in gardens, much less aquaponic systems because of LIABILITY issues, do we stand a chance?


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