The Obama Administration, Transparency and China
By Tony Corbo
There has been a lot of tough talk about China in this presidential campaign. Both major party candidates promise to make China a fair trading partner. Frankly, we are skeptical of both candidates because, according to their records, both Democratic and Republican administrations have let China run over the rights of American consumers.
Food imports from China have skyrocketed in recent years despite China’s sketchy food safety track record. Most of the food imports fall within the purview of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration and each year, FDA inspectors halt the importation of hundreds of Chinese food items that come to our ports-of-entry for major food safety violations such as microbiological and chemical contamination, filth, and mislabeling. However, the FDA only has the capacity to inspection about 2 percent of imported human food and around 1 percent of animal food, so thousands of Chinese food items come through U.S. borders unchecked.
Imported food products that fall under the jurisdiction of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) – meat, poultry and egg products – have a different and much more stringent regulatory scheme to follow. Since 2003, China has been interested in exporting poultry products to the U.S. After several reviews by USDA staff, the Bush Administration proposed a regulation in November of 2005 that would permit China to export cooked poultry to the U.S. provided that the raw poultry came from either the U.S. or Canada. The reason for the restriction was due to concern within USDA about poultry diseases in China and the inspection practices in Chinese poultry slaughter facilities. In April of 2006, the Bush Administration approved that regulation but the Chinese were not satisfied with the scenario and no Chinese plants were certified. Instead, China continued to pursue its goal of having its own poultry exported to the U.S.
Congress intervened and in two successive fiscal years there was explicit language contained in the appropriations bills for USDA that prohibited it from spending any money on approving poultry imports from China. China retaliated by stopping importation of certain U.S. foodstuffs. At the beginning of the Obama Administration, a coalition of big U.S. agribusiness interests wrote to the new president urging him to oppose any extension of the congressional ban on poultry imports from China. So, in 2010, the ban was lifted but Congress insisted that USDA give the Congress regular reports on the status of poultry imports from China.
Right before USDA was scheduled to release its February 2012 report to Congress, we became aware that USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) – the department’s trade promotion agency – was playing a significant role in advocating the importation of poultry products from China. That prompted us to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to find out exactly what role that agency was playing in the decision-making on China. When the USDA report to Congress was finally released, our suspicions were confirmed. Instead of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) taking the lead on determining whether China’s food safety system could be declared “equivalent” to ours when it came to poultry products, FAS was spearheading the effort to move the process forward to permit China to export poultry products to the U.S.
Over the course of several months, we received 619 pages of documents from FAS, most of which were redacted (see below for links to these documents by date of receipt). Many of the redacted pages were e-mails involving FSIS staff, so we followed up with FSIS on those documents and on October 22, 2012, we received 152 pages of documents from FSIS and many of those were also redacted. Some of the pages that were not redacted were of the December 2010 audit that FSIS conducted in China that found major food safety problems. That audit report has been posted on the FSIS website for nearly one year, so those documents revealed nothing new.
What we did learn from these documents was the following:
- Casey Bean, Director of the FAS Animal Division, is tired of references to trade trumping food safety when there is criticism of his agency’s involvement in this issue
- One FAS employee made it back safety from her skiing trip
- FAS was encouraging U.S. industry trade associations to teach the Chinese on how to pass an FSIS audit
- The Chinese somehow paid for the travel and lodging of the U.S. audit delegation that visited China in December 2010, contrary to USDA policy.
Just last week, in a meeting with FSIS officials, we learned that China has submitted list of eight plants that it would like to certify to export poultry products to the U.S. FSIS is in the process of setting up a schedule for an audit team visit China to verify that corrective actions have been taken as a result of the December 2010 audit findings.
The Obama Administration promised that it was going to be the most transparent administration in history. The response to this FOIA request suggests otherwise. We still remain concerned about the food safety track record of China. Food safety scandals continue to occur in that country. Recent polls indicate that Chinese consumers trust the safety of imported food products more than of their domestic food products. And even after hundreds of American dogs have died from consuming chicken jerky treats manufactured in China, the FDA refuses to take action.
We urge the Obama Administration put action to its spoken promises and come clean on China. The health and welfare of U.S. consumers are at stake.
Documents obtained from FAS in response to Food & Water Watch’s FOIA request can be viewed here: