"Chinese chicken" will soon have a whole new meaning, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently gave the green-light to four chicken processing plants in China, allowing chicken raised and slaughtered in the U.S. to be exported to China for processing, and then shipped back to the U.S. and sold on grocery shelves here.
The actual arrangement will take some time to set in, however. "All this means is that we've deemed China's poultry processing equivalent to the process in the United States," says Arianne Perkins, USDA public affairs specialist. Individual companies will still have to be certified, something Perkins says has not happened yet.
While the logistics are hard to imagine—if we can't safely leave chicken out for the length of a family picnic, how can it be shipped halfway around the world and back with no ill effects?—the USDA is doing its best to reassure both chicken farmers and consumers that the process is 100-percent safe.
"The Food Safety and Inspection Service’s number-one priority is always food safety," Perkins says. In the official memo, the FSIS says that "all outstanding issues have been resolved"—a pretty big promise considering that in the past year alone China has made news for passing off rat meat as mutton, selling sausages filled with maggots, inexplicably finding thousands of dead pigs floating in the waters of Shanghai, and even having an outbreak of the H7N9 bird flu in live poultry.
“We do have a concern about safety," National Chicken Council senior vice president Bill Roenigk said in a statement. "But we’ve been assured and reassured by the USDA that they will do 100-percent testing on poultry products from China. We have confidence that the USDA will do that testing and do it in a good and adequate manner."
However Perkins adds that while there will be increased testing on the chicken before re-entering the U.S., they will not be doing any on-site monitoring or testing in China, a fact that Rep. Rosa De Lauro (D-Conn.) said in a statement is "deeply worrisome" for American consumers. Even worse, a report just this month from the United States Government Accountability Office found that the USDA's domestic poultry inspections have a lot of problems anyhow, as they are in the process of replacing certified-USDA inspectors with those provided by the poultry companies themselves.
In addition to the concerns that this decision could open the door for even more unsafe practices, no country-of-origin labels are required under the new rules, so consumers won't know where their bird is coming from. Plus industry insiders warn that the move is politically motivated by a desire to get China to re-allow lucrative U.S. beef imports and will likely lead to allowing imports of Chinese chickens, a practice that's been banned since bird flu and other food safety concerns first surfaced.
All of this has many recommending to buy local so you know your dinner is safe and 100-percent all-American.