Change in Policy Catches Attention of Member of House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee
WASHINGTON, D.C. – On the heels of the recent visit to Washington by China’s President Hu Jintao, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) published an interim rule yesterday in the Federal Register that opens the door to poultry and poultry product imports from countries that have experienced outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza, including animals raised in the People’s Republic of China.
Chinese poultry product imports will not be immediately permitted since USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) must still approve the poultry slaughtering procedures in China. But the announcement of today’s rule clears a major hurdle in that process.
In April 2006, during President Hu Jintao’s last visit to Washington, USDA announced the approval of regulations that would permit the importation of cooked poultry products from China, provided that the raw poultry came from an approved source, primarily poultry slaughter facilities in the United States or Canada. However, no poultry products – cooked or otherwise – have been imported from China because in 2008 and 2009, the U.S. Congress blocked the implementation of regulations that would permit the importation. In addition to the import of processed poultry that were raised somewhere else, China has made it clear they wanted USDA approval for imports of poultry products made from Chinese-origin poultry.
Emails obtained by Food & Water Watch in response to a Freedom of Information Act request reveal that concerns expressed by APHIS regarding the presence of the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of avian influenza in Chinese poultry flocks were the reason the agency would not approve poultry product imports from China that were processed from poultry of Chinese origin.
“Today’s announcement is totally astounding,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. “The sudden reversal of the APHIS position smacks of political pressure taking over at USDA – just like it did in 2006. Regardless of who occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, trade always seems to trump consumer protection,” Hauter added.
“The timing of this announcement is particularly troubling considering the recent state visit from China,” said Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), a member of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee. “Department of Agriculture officials should have the safety of American consumers as their primary concern and should not be susceptible to pressure from the United States Trade Representative. I intend to hold USDA accountable for the questionable timing of this announcement when they testify before our subcommittee this year.”
“Just last week, Food & Water Watch filed a Citizen’s Petition with USDA’s FSIS to void the 2006 regulations based on serious procedural errors made during the process to include China on the list of approved importers,” added Hauter. “Yesterday’s decision by APHIS to reverse course when it comes to avian flu is another hapless mistake to add to USDA’s tally that puts consumers’ health and safety in the balance.”
The interim final rule went into effect January 24, but the agency is taking public comment on the rule until March 25, 2011.