The Chinese chicken saga continues…
On July 18, I attended a meeting at the USDA to get an update on the status of poultry exports to the U.S. from the People’s Republic of China. When I returned from the meeting, I saw an email alert from the Food and Drug Administration entitled, “Questions and Answers Regarding Chicken Jerky Treats from China.” The press statement detailed FDA’s investigation into complaints from dog owners who claimed their pets got sick from eating chicken jerky dog treats imported from China. The Chinese will stop at nothing to force its dubious chicken into the U.S. market to unsuspecting consumers, I thought. What an ironic example of how screwed up our food safety system really is.
The USDA has a fairly elaborate process to approve imported meat and poultry products for human consumption. If there are no major issues with the exporting country’s food safety system, it takes about two years between the time a country applies to USDA and publication of the final regulations approving its application. Unfortunately, such a system is not in place for other imported foods that are regulated by the FDA, including pet food.
Food & Water Watch has led a campaign to prevent China to export their poultry products for human consumption since 2005 when the Bush Administration supported regulation to allow China to export processed poultry products to the U.S. China first asked the USDA for approval to export its poultry products to the U.S. in 2003. Even though 2004 USDA audits turned up unsanitary conditions in several Chinese poultry plants they visited, and there had been several outbreaks of H5N1 bird flu in Chinese poultry flocks that killed thousands of animals and some humans, the Bush Administration proceeded to propose the new regulation in November 2005 anyway.
Furthermore, the slaughter facilities in China did not meet USDA inspection requirements. So, the proposed regulation restricted any poultry exported to the U.S. to products where the raw poultry came from “approved sources.” At the time, the only “approved sources” were the U.S. or Canada, which meant that North American poultry slaughterhouses could ship their raw carcasses to China to be cooked and the finished products could then be shipped back to the U.S. in order for U.S consumers to “enjoy” them. As ridiculous as that sounds, the Bush Administration approved that rule in April 2006 over the objections of most of the people who commented on the proposed rule, including Food & Water Watch. When the rule was published, USDA estimated that approximately 2.5 million pounds of this exported processed poultry from China would be consumed annually.
Since no U.S. or Canadian poultry processing company stepped forward to take advantage of such a wonderful opportunity, the Chinese stepped up pressure on USDA to permit it to ship processed poultry originating in China directly into the U.S. Then, Congress intervened. Led by Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), the Congress in 2008 and 2009 explicitly prohibited USDA from spending any money to implement or propose any regulations that would permit China to export processed poultry products to the U.S. In response, China filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO) arguing that the U.S. was treating its poultry products unfairly. Big U.S. agribusiness put pressure on the new Obama Administration in 2009 to have the congressional ban lifted because the Chinese had threatened retaliatory action on U.S. agricultural exports to China. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative began to lobby the Congress to have the ban lifted. The 2010 spending bill for USDA lifted the ban and China eventually won its WTO case against the U.S. Even though the Chinese prevailed, it meant that USDA had to restart its review process of the Chinese food safety system.
The Chinese have been less than cooperative in this new review by USDA. According to the verbal report I received from USDA officials on July 18, the Chinese government did not permit USDA inspectors back into their poultry processing facilities until December 2010. USDA inspectors, once again, found food safety deficiencies in those plants. The Chinese wrote to USDA in early 2012 that the deficiencies identified in 2010 audit had been corrected but have yet to schedule a time for USDA inspectors verify Chinese poultry facilities themselves. Why were the Chinese dragging their feet in completing the review process when they have made it such a big trade issue? The July 18 FDA alert on Chinese chicken jerky dog treats offered a major clue. I asked Food & Water Watch’s research department to dig into the volume of pet food imports from China and this is what the found:
From 2003, when China first approached USDA about poultry exports, to 2011, the volume of pet food exports (regulated by the Food and Drug Administration) to the U.S. from China have grown 85-fold. Meanwhile we have yet to permit one ounce of imported poultry products from China for human consumption (regulated by USDA). Remember that the USDA estimated that 2.5 million pounds of poultry products would be exported to the U.S. for human consumption under the 2006 rule. Under the FDA nearly 86 million pounds of pet food came from China in 2011.
But it’s not just our pets whose health is at risk. China continues to experience major human food safety scandals as well:
- Dairy products contaminated with melamine that sickened 300,000 Chinese consumers and killed 8 babies in 2008
- Toxic bean sprouts treated with banned substances in April 2011
- Pesticide-drenched yard long beans in March 2010
- Dairy products contaminated with leather-hydrolized protein in 2011
- Rice flour contaminated with heavy metals that continues to be a food safety concern
- The use of recycled cooking oil salvaged from restaurant drains
- Cabbage tainted with formaldehyde in 2012
- Exploding Chinese watermelons caused by growth-promoting chemicals
- Arsenic-laced soy sauce
- The use of bleach in mushrooms to make them appear fresher
- The use of borax to treat pork to make it look like beef
- This year, baby Chinese formula was found with dangerous levels of mercury and a cancer-causing toxin
China should not be allowed to export any food – for humans or pets – to the U.S. until it gets its food safety act together. FDA remains hamstrung to regulate the safety of imported food products – it only has the capacity to inspection about 2 percent of imported human food and around 1 percent of animal food. The new FDA Food Safety Modernization Act signed into law by President Obama gives the agency new authorities to regulate the safety of imported food. Unfortunately, the regulations to implement the new law have been bottled up in the White House Office of Management and Budget for nearly 8 months. One of the proposed regulations would tighten the food safety standards for pet food. According to the law, those regulations should have been finalized on July 4, 2012. We are still waiting for the proposed rule on pet food safety to be published.
Until then, pet owners beware and make sure you check for country of origin labels on your pet’s food and treats.