Open letter to Congress: Stop funding chicken from China

McDonalds-Chicken-McNuggets

In August 2013, the USDA announced that it would allow four facilities in China to process chicken raised in the United States, Chile, Canada and elsewhere, and ship this cooked chicken back into the United States for human consumption. Due to China’s deeply troubling food safety record, in January we posted a petition on Change.org asking Congress to keep Chinese processed chicken out of our schools and supermarkets.

To date, over 328,000 people have signed this petition — but Congress has yet to take action.

Now Chinese-processed chicken is even more likely to come into our country.  Just last week, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) approved the final paperwork certifying these four Chinese processing facilities.  American companies may now freely take advantage of China’s far lower labor costs (reportedly $11 per hour for American poultry workers versus $1-2 per hour for Chinese workers) to process their chicken.  American seafood purveyors are already sending crab and salmon to China for shelling and de-boning based on a similar differential in labor costs, which actually makes the 14,000 mile round trip economical.

But not only will this arrangement cost American jobs, it could put consumers at risk. 

China’s recent food safety record can only be described as abysmal. It includes infamous cases of widespread adulteration, such as the melamine-tainted milk powder that sickened 300,000, or the more than $1 million worth of rat and other small mammal meat sold to Chinese consumers as lamb. And poultry in particular has been at the center of recent food safety scandals in China, as the New York Times reported recently:

Earlier this year, a major meat supplier to McDonald’s got caught up in a food scandal after a Chinese television station broadcast video showing workers in its Shanghai plant doctoring labels on chicken and beef products and scooping up meat that had fallen on the ground and putting it back on conveyor belts for processing. The country has also had frequent outbreaks of deadly avian influenza, and the Food and Drug Administration attributed the deaths of more than 500 dogs and some cats to chicken jerky treats from China. (NOTE: The number of pet deaths associated with these treats is now over 1,000 according to the FDA.) 

There are additional troubling facts. The last audit of the four Chinese processing facilities in question was back in March, 2013, which means we are now relying exclusively on the Chinese government’s assurances that the plants still meet equivalency standards.  Moreover, the four plants will not have on-site USDA inspectors to ensure that food safety standards are maintained, and the plant managers could easily learn beforehand of any periodic USDA inspections because USDA inspectors must apply for a China visa far in advance.

In addition, avoiding Chinese-processed chicken will be difficult, since companies will not be required to label where the processing took place if the processed chicken is further processed in this country – in other words, added to foods like soups, frozen entrees or chicken nuggets.

Most troubling of all, as revealed in a report last year, Chinese-processed chicken can easily appear on school lunch trays and other child nutrition programs, despite the USDA’s initial statement to the contrary.  This means we may be exposing an especially vulnerable population — children — to potential food safety risks.

We therefore ask you, our senators and representatives, to take decisive action to ensure that chicken processed in China does not reach the plates of children in our schools or in other federal child nutrition programs.

You can do this by supporting the inclusion of Section 742 of H.R. 4800, the House version of the FY2015 Agriculture Appropriations bill, in any FY 2015 Omnibus appropriations bill being considered.  

Here is the exact language of Section 742 in the H.R. 4800:

None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to procure processed poultry products imported into the United States from the People’s Republic of China for use in the school lunch program under the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act (42 U.S.C. 1751 et seq.), the Child and Adult Food Care Program under section 17 of such Act (42 U.S.C. 1766), the Summer Food Service Program for Children under section 13 of such Act (42 U.S.C. 1761), or the school breakfast program under the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 (42 U.S.C. 1771 et seq.).

The protection of American children from any possible food safety risks must be a top priority of Congress. Over 328,000 Americans agree that we should be keeping Chinese-processed poultry out of the school lunch program and other federal child nutrition programs until China’s food safety system is on par with our own.

This post was co-authored with Bettina Siegel and first appeared on The Hill