The USDA is under pressure — due to trade negotiations — to approve Chinese chicken imports.
Relations with China figure prominently this week as Peoples Republic of China President Hu Jintao visits the United States to meet with President Obama and members of Congress. I wonder if they’ll talk about food safety. The USDA broke its own food safety rules a while back in an attempt to quickly approve China to export chicken to the U.S. For this reason, Food & Water Watch submitted a Citizen Petition asking the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to remove China from eligibility to export processed poultry.
This is another instance of food safety taking a back seat to trade negotiations. This particular story has some history. Back in 2003, we had a slight beef problem here in the U.S., when mad cow disease was discovered in Washington State. China reacted by banning U.S. beef imports. In the beef industry’s (and the U.S. government’s trade negotiators’) efforts to overturn this ban, a chicken-for-beef swap has been on the table. The deal: if the U.S. allows Chinese chicken imports, China may start buying U.S. beef again.
Unfortunately, in the rush to approve Chinese chicken, the USDA has made critical mistakes. In 2006, they rushed the approval of a food safety rule, skipped a few steps in the approval process, and failed to submit their work to the USDA Office of Civil Rights for review, all because they wanted to be able to tell the Chinese President that they were moving forward on approving Chinese chicken in time for his visit to the U.S. at that time.
The USDA also led the public to believe that country of origin labeling would allow consumers to avoid poultry from China. But these rules would not apply to Chinese chicken, making it difficult for consumers to identify the products.
Submitting a FOIA request to the USDA revealed these mistakes, but it took close to two years of persistence to have that request fulfilled. What if we hadn’t been diligent?
Food safety in China is suspect at best; their own officials — and even Chinese consumers — point to systemic problems that could be dangerous to American consumers. The USDA’s job is to minimize risk associated with food production and importation, but their actions demonstrate that they are willing to increase risk to accommodate good trade relations.