USDA Misinforms Parents Re: Chinese-Processed Chicken in School Meals


On August 30, the USDA announced that it will allow four Chinese facilities to process poultry raised and slaughtered in the United States, Chile or Canada, and then export the cooked poultry products back into the United States.  The USDA’s move is widely seen as a preliminary step toward eventually allowing China to export its own raw poultry into this country, in exchange for China’s opening up its lucrative beef market to American beef producers.

chicken nuggetsGiven China’s troubling food safety record and the fact that its own government official essentially admitted that China can’t live up to the food safety standards of more developed nations, there are those who speculate that the timing of the USDA announcement – the Friday before Labor Day weekend — was not unintentional.  But whether or not the agency was trying to bury this news, the announcement quickly led to an outcry among journalistsenvironmental watchdog groups and Congressional representatives, including New York Senator Charles Schumer (D), Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown (D) and  Connecticut Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D).

In the days following the announcement, a few readers asked me if the new USDA policy means that Chinese-processed chicken will appear on American school lunch trays.  On the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) website, I found this helpful Q & A:

Will chicken processed in China be included in school lunches?

No. The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service ensures that products included in [sic] school lunch program are produced, raised, and processed only in the United States, its territories or possessions, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, or the Trust Territories of the Pacific Islands.

To parents with little knowledge of how school food programs operate (i.e., the vast majority), this statement from FSIS would seem to settle the question — and provide solid reassurance for those concerned about Chinese-processed chicken being fed to their kids at school.

But the FSIS statement is in fact quite misleading.

It is true that school districts participating in the National School Lunch Program (the “NSLP,” which also includes school breakfast and after-school snack programs) receive agricultural commodities from the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, and it is true that these products are domestic.  But the USDA is well aware that school districts also procure significant portions of their school food from private vendors, and this method of school food sourcing is entirely omitted from the answer above — despite the blanket “no” response.

So the pertinent question is: can private vendors sell Chinese-processed chicken to schools?

I emailed the FSIS and a USDA spokesperson agreed that “schools also make their own purchases” of school food, but she went on to note that such purchases are governed by a “Buy American” regulation which

requires participating schools to purchase domestically grown and processed foods, to the maximum extent practicable. A domestic . . . product is defined to be “. . .  a food product that is processed in the United States substantially using agricultural commodities that are produced in the United States.”

This regulation sounds like a de facto ban on Chinese-processed chicken.  But at the end of her email, the spokesperson also disclosed that under the “Buy American” rule:

[p]roducts that are processed in the United States and comprised of at least 51 percent domestic ingredients are considered domestic.

I have since expressly confirmed with the USDA that this definition of “domestic” would indeed allow Chinese-processed chicken into the school lunch program.  Here’s how:  if, for example, a manufacturer of frozen chicken egg rolls fully assembles the egg rolls in this country, but sources the cooked chicken in the egg rolls from a Chinese processor, the egg rolls are considered “domestic” so long as the Chinese-processed chicken doesn’t comprise more than 49% of the total product. School districts could buy these egg rolls without violating the “Buy American” rule and the egg rolls would not have to bear any country-of-origin labeling to disclose the location of the poultry processing.  And this scenario could easily apply to any chicken-based entree supplied to schools, such as chicken soup, frozen chicken burritos, chicken chili, chicken-stuffed ravioli, and more.

I also learned that there’s a second exception to the “Buy American” rule.  In the unlikely event that the economics of chicken processing shift, such that it becomes reliably cheaper for schools to source items like patties and nuggets using Chinese-processed chicken over domestically processed chicken, then schools can freely buy such products, regardless of ingredient percentages.

So the bottom line is this: despite the blanket reassurance to the contrary on FSIS’s website, it is entirely possible that Chinese-processed chicken will be used in school meals.

It’s also worth noting that, according to the USDA spokesperson, there is no analogous “Buy American” restriction on schools providing evening meals to students, nor does it apply to meals served in day care centers, as both of these programs are part of the Child and Adult Care Food Program rather than the NSLP.  (“School supper” programs are increasingly common; by 2015, an estimated 21 million students will be eating dinner at school.)  Accordingly, it appears that any Chinese-processed chicken product, regardless of ingredient percentages, can be used in these meals as well.

Whether Chinese-processed chicken presents a serious concern for parents is open for debate.  According to sources interviewed by Politico, few U.S. poultry producers have expressed interest in processing chicken in China at the present time due to logistical constraints.  If that situation changes, however, parents are unlikely to know about it.  Moreover, because no country-of-origin labeling is required on products containing Chinese-processed chicken, only school districts which expressly obligate vendors to use 100% domestically processed chicken will know exactly what they’re serving to kids.

In my opinion, though, parents ought to be far more worried about the possible lifting of the export ban on Chinese-raised and -slaughtered raw poultry.  If raw Chinese poultry enters this country and becomes reliably cheaper than domestic poultry, its use in school food could become widespread under the second exception to the “Buy American” rule noted above.  (And, at any rate, raw Chinese poultry could always be used, up to 49%, in manufactured food items regardless of cost.)  Given that some Chinese poultry farmers allegedly used large quantities of illegal drugs in raising chickens sold to KFC, and given the potential vulnerability of young school children eating such chicken, a lifting of the export ban on raw Chinese poultry is a cause for serious concern.

In the meantime, is FSIS intentionally misleading the public on this issue?  I can’t know, of course, but I suspect that in the rush to quell concerns about the August 30th announcement, the FSIS simply failed to vet its school food Q & A with the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, the branch of the agency overseeing child nutrition programs.  Regardless of motive, however, my own questioning of the agency (which began a full two weeks ago) has clearly brought the inaccuracy to its attention — yet, as of this writing, the original statement remains on its website.

[UPDATE:  In direct response to this post, the USDA did change its website two days after this post first appeared.  You can read the new text and my thoughts here, plus see my answers to reader questions re: Chinese-processed (and Chinese-raised) chicken here.]

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  1. says

    I am leery of Chinese made candies (that’d be YOU, Oriental Trading Company), specifically because of the melamine tainted baby formula in China. Now chicken. And that’s not in some colorful catalog.

  2. says

    Thank you for investigating this important issue. Glad to see it’s been shared by so many influential food advocates. Now the question is, who is going to start the petition to the USDA asking them to make sure it is not served in school lunches?

  3. says

    This is the Email I sent to on 9/13/13 – To Date, I do not have any response addressing the questions:

    I am a cooperative purchasing clerk for a large cooperative food bid representing 51 school districts and 3 County agencies in Upstate New York, with over 1200 food items included alone. Our regular food bid contains many processed chicken items, which are not a part of the USDA Commodity Foods that are made available to school districts using their allotments. I have many districts that do not participate in the processing of USDA foods, and utilize their allotments strictly as “brown box” from their designated Area Warehouse.

    I reviewed a copy of the “FAQ Regarding Equivalence of China Poultry Processing System” document and would like to request a bit more information directly.

    1. As I understand the report, “The processed chicken products must be fully cooked prior to export, and no chickens raised or slaughtered in China are eligible for exporting to the United States, even if they are processed.” That being stated, I would like to inquire as to whether or not the chicken meat would be allowed as an import to China from other countries (i.e. the Middle East region, or Asia, etc.), or if this too will have oversight?

    2. Will there be any inspectors located at the processing plants in China who will provide oversight and inspection regularly, other than annually?

    3. Would there be a listing available of the brands of chicken products that will be/are processed in China for consumers to access?

    4. Will processed chicken products contain the Processing Country of Origin on the label, or if the meat was also imported from another country to China, will the label reflect that information as well?

    5. If there is a recall notification for something that has been imported from China, will there be any ramifications to the Chinese-based company; and if there were litigation, how would the China-based company be held accountable to the citizens in the United States?

    6. Would a recall notice requirement be initiated from China itself?

    7. Will the USDA be allowing this same eligibility for processing foods in China to extend to Turkey or Beef products as well?

    Would someone please get back to me, in writing, as a response to the questions raised above at your earliest convenience. These issues have already been addressed in the past by School Boards, Administrators, Cafeteria Managers, and communities in regards to the importing of foods, especially in light of the documented history of recall alerts from toys to pet foods, and it is certainly likely that questions will be raised again in light of this recent extensive regulation to processing by China.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Robin: These are fantastic – and entirely reasonable — questions. Thank you for sharing this with us, and of course please let us know if you receive a reply. – Bettina

      • says


        I certainly will, if I get a response addressing the questions. I was a little shocked at your article today, in that up to 49% is going to be an acceptable amount of imported China based chicken.

  4. says

    You got their attention. This appeared this morning in Congressional Quarterly Executive Briefing on Agriculture

    USDA Tries to Deflect Concerns on Chinese Chicken. USDA officials are trying to reassure parents that their kids won’t be put at risk by Chinese-processed chicken. Although several facilities in China have been approved to export processed U.S. chicken, there are several reasons that the product won’t show up on many school menus, according to USDA. Any meat purchased for the schools by USDA has to be domestic, and schools that purchase their own meat are required to buy “domestically grown and processed foods, ‘to the maximum extent practicable,'”Janey Thornton, USDA’s deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, writes in a blog post. That doesn’t rule out, however, that the Chinese-processed chicken could show up in a food product. “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,” she added.

  5. Lisa says

    Chinese processed chicken shouldn’t be available anywhere in the US. First of all, I don’t know HOW the economics of this could possible work. It makes very little sense to me. Second, it is completely unreasonable that there would be no source of origin provided on chicken. Isn’t it a requirement for fruits and veggies? I am so thankful that I have relocated to a small farm in the midwest, where next year I will be raising my own meat chickens and won’t have to worry about where my chicken meat is processed…it will be “processed” by the Amish farmers a few miles down the road. And I guess we’ll never consume another “nugget” or “strip” of breaded processed chicken until there is truth in labeling. (And yes, I know that chicken is not good, but I love some deep fried food:) .)

  6. Zoe Harris says

    This totally outrageous! I’m wondering what the motivation is on the part of the parties that set this up with China. My guess is it’s about money saved. We need to focus on LOCALLY GROWN & PROCESSED FOODS. Keep it all here for so many good reasons.


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