Sunday, September 8, 2013

China now allowed to process U.S. chickens

You may lose your appetite for processed chicken products when you realize the processing might have been performed in China.

Politico apparently broke the story on 30 August. Other outlets like the New York Times picked it up and provided more consumer-relevant context.

The Department of Agriculture on Friday approved four Chinese poultry processors to begin shipping a limited amount of meat to the United States ...

Initially, the companies will be allowed to export only cooked poultry products from birds raised in the United States and Canada.

However, the audit trail will be all but impossible for anyone to follow.
Under the new rules, the Chinese facilities will verify that cooked products exported to the United States came from American or Canadian birds. So no U.S.D.A. inspector will be present in the plants.

And because the poultry will be processed, it will not require country-of-origin labeling. Nor will consumers eating chicken noodle soup from a can or chicken nuggets in a fast-food restaurant know if the chicken came from Chinese processing plants.

Remember that bit about consumers not being able to know whether the chicken came from Chinese processing plants: it will be especially relevant a little later.

I have trouble trusting U.S.-based food processing plants. I have no confidence in the trustworthiness of Chinese food processing plants. China, socially and economically speaking, is still in its Gilded Age. The economic powers that be are unconstrained except when public outrage reaches critical levels. Corruption and fraud in the pursuit of profit are endemic. Only a week ago the Times published a different piece, "Fast and Flawed Inspections of Factories Abroad", which described how Chinese and other overseas manufacturers evade the inspections now required by some Western companies.

Two years ago, honey unexpectedly lacking pollen was found in many supermarkets under many brand names — "[m]ore than three-fourths of the honey sold in U.S. grocery stores", according to Food Safety News. (Removing the pollen from honey makes it impossible to determine the honey's origin.) The technique used to remove the pollen

is a spin-off of a technique refined by the Chinese, who have illegally dumped tons of their honey – some containing illegal antibiotics – on the U.S. market for years.
Richard Adee, whose 80,000 hives in multiple states produce 7 million pounds of honey each year, told Food Safety News that “honey has been valued by millions for centuries for its flavor and nutritional value and that is precisely what is completely removed by the ultra-filtration process.”

“There is only one reason to ultra-filter honey and there’s nothing good about it,” he says.

“It’s no secret to anyone in the business that the only reason all the pollen is filtered out is to hide where it initially came from and the fact is that in almost all cases, that is China,” Adee added.

There have been other food-safety issues with food (and pet food) originating in China. Quality control simply is not a priority for Chinese companies. If they can get away with dangerous shortcuts, they will.

So why did the USDA approve processing by those four Chinese plants? Politico quotes a plausible explanation given by Food and Water Watch. The group's executive director, Wenonah Hauter, issued a statement linking the USDA's action to U.S. beef exports.

“It’s common practice for government agencies to release information they hope to sneak past consumers on Friday afternoons before a holiday weekend,” she said.

“It has been no secret that China has wanted to export chicken to the U.S. in exchange for reopening its market for beef from the U.S. that has been closed since 2003 due to the diagnosis of a cow in Washington State with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease. Today’s audit report reveals yet again that USDA is willing to allow trade to trump food safety.”

Worse, the reassurances the USDA is giving us sound like absolute bullshit.
National Chicken Council Senior Vice President Bill Roenigk previously told POLITICO that USDA has repeatedly told the group it will ensure the Chinese-processed chicken will be safe.

“We have a concern about safety. But we’ve been assured and reassured by USDA that they will do 100 percent testing on poultry products from China,” he said.

Now we come back to the part about consumers not being able to know whether processed chicken came from Chinese processing plants. If we won't know, how will the USDA know? And the bigger question, because I suspect this will be the case — if the USDA will know which products contain chicken processed in China, why can't consumers know?

Since USDA has seen fit to throw U.S. consumers under the bus, I'll be giving up processed-chicken products of all kinds. For the sake of your health, I suggest you follow suit. The only way to get the USDA and food manufacturers to pay attention is to make this stupid decision a prohibitively costly one.

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