By Katherine Cirullo
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the People’s Republic of China are on the brink of finalizing a deal that will allow China to process U.S.-raised chicken and send it back to the United States, an unfortunate scenario where trade might trump the health and safety of millions of Americans.
Last week, opponents of the decision took to Capitol Hill to speak out about the many perils of this plan and to demand Congress support a provision that would lessen the ill effects it would have on consumers. Food & Water Watch’s Senior Lobbyist Tony Corbo spoke at the briefing alongside Kelly Horton, Legislative Assistant to Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and several notable experts and advocates. Bettina Siegel, Barbara Kowalcyk and Nancy Huehnergarth’s online petition opposing Chinese chicken imports has been signed by more than 300,000 people so far. Siegel is responsible for initiating the petition that removed “pink slime” from school lunch and stopping Chinese chicken from making its way onto school lunch trays is her latest next crusade. Terry Safranek founded Animal Parents Against Pet Treats and Food Made in China after her beloved dog Sampson died of kidney failure after eating a chicken jerky treat from China. Dr. Peter Li, Associate Professor of East Asian Politics at the University of Houston-Downtown also participated in the panel. Dr. Li is an expert in Chinese animal husbandry practices.
As Kowalcyk framed it, “Our food safety system is only as strong as the weakest link…are we ready to allow poultry processed in China when we know they already have issues with food safety?” It became clear with each panelist’s testimony that this comment couldn’t ring more true.
Analysis shows that China’s food safety inspection system has a shoddy track record and its poultry products, processed or raw, are not fit to eat. An audit of China’s poultry slaughter system from March of 2013 showed poor management, irregular or no disease prevention measures and abuse of drugs like antibiotics. In fact, the USDA is still concerned about the safety of poultry raised in China, so those products will still be banned. Why, then, does the USDA support importing poultry that has been processed in China?
Under the USDA’s decision, China would be required to provide government-paid inspectors in the plants that would be eligible to export to the U.S., but the agency would not have inspectors stationed in the Chinese plants to make sure that U.S. chicken is being processed to send back to the U.S.. Here in the United States where foodborne illnesses are all too common and sometimes fatal, our lawmakers should be hearing the warning bells, loud and clear.
Speakers at the briefing brought up another key point of concern highlighting China’s poor food safety record: the massive outbreak of pet illnesses and fatalities in the United States that are linked to pet treats made with meat processed in China. As Kowalcyz stated, this problem is an obvious canary in the coal mine – a telltale sign that if Chinese pet treats are making our beloved animals sick, Chinese chicken may very well make American people sick too.
The Food and Drug Administration has an ongoing investigation and found that pet jerky treats containing poultry and duck products from China have been linked to 3,600 pet illnesses in the United States. Since 2007, around 600 pets have died from these treats. The scientific reason why remains unclear.
The New York Department of Agriculture found five different antibiotics in some of the pet treats (four out of five of them not approved for poultry production in the U.S.) Unfortunately for China’s rap, this tragic problem has not gone unnoticed by the American public. In February, 22,000 Americans signed a petition organized by the Animal Parents Against Pet Treats and Food Made in China urging the FDA to implement a section of the new Food Safety Modernization Act to better inform consumers of dangerous food products, whether for humans or pets.
It’s time for Congress to connect the dots, listen to the facts and take action to protect Americans. USDA’s decision, which would allow poultry that’s been processed in China to reach American supermarkets, restaurants and the National School Lunch Program, might pave the way to the next worse scenario: raw poultry imports from China. Our representatives simply must make Americans’ food safety a top priority.