Watch for “U.S. Raised” Label on Chickens Processed in China

By special request, today’s blog will not be about pigs but chicken! It’s been more than a year since the USDA announced its “controversial chicken arrangement with China.” This issue is the headline again this week thanks in part to a recent Facebook post by Erin Brockovich.

On the surface this seems like a simple issue: The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the current administration will allow chickens raised in this country to be shipped to China for processing, shipped back to America, and then labeled as “grown in the USA.”

So what’s the fuss? Many Americans are concerned about food safety – and rightly so. There has been a push in this country for transparency from farm gate to dinner plate. More and more consumers wants to know how food is grown here. However, the decision to allow U.S.-raised chicken to be processed in China creates more questions about transparency in this process, as well as raises many questions about food safety.

According to an article in the Huffington Post, eventually the USDA will allow chicken raised and slaughtered in China to be imported directly into the United States, despite the fact that:

  • A December 2013 USDA audit found that China’s poultry slaughter system is not yet equivalent to that of the United States in terms of food safety practices.
  • The New York Times reported that toxic soil and water pollution in some areas of China is causing growing concern over the safety of food produced in that country.
  • Bloomberg News reported that at a press conference, one of China’s own food safety officials essentially admitted that his country can’t meet the food safety standards of more developed nations.

If “outsourcing” can happen to U.S. chicken, it could happen to other American-raised meats. I’m concerned about what precedent this sets. As a pork producer, I’m especially concerned about the future of U.S.-raised pork.

The issue of U.S.-raised chicken being shipped to China for processing and then returned to the U.S. for consumption is especially complicated! It appears this decision is motivated by money, so let’s “follow the money and see if we can uncover the motive. I’ve read where the average wage for chicken processors in the USA is $11 per hour; the average wage in China is $1 to $2 per hour.

One can’t read the disparities in minimum wage without thinking about the ongoing debate in this country to increase the minimum wage. (I don’t have enough space to delve deeper into this this angle today, but I certainly want to in a future blog post.) If our workforce loses out to China over an $11 wage, what chance does our middle class have? Remember, the Obama administration has placed an emphasis on helping the middle class!

Another issue this situation raises is confusion over the “locally raised” label. If this chicken is raised locally, shipped to China for processing and returned to your local store, will it be labeled as a “locally” grown chicken? How can we guaranteed that an “organically raised” chicken from the U.S. that’s sent to China for processing will be the same chicken that’s returned to the U.S. for consumption? How “green” is this move? After all, it’s requiring more energy to ship to and from China!

Furthermore, how did the U.S. Department of Agriculture even reach the decision to send U.S. raised chicken to China for processing?

I’m asking a lot of questions today, but as you can see, this is not a simple issue. Regulation can get very complicated: labeling, minimum wages, climate change, even avian flu can be brought in to this issue. Trade between countries can get complicated because one little issue can affect many other issues. I could even start in on school lunches here. If our department of ag is for chickens being processed in China, will this be a part of food our kids eat in school? The food eaten in the schools are not purchased by an American mom from Trader Joes or Whole Foods.

Here’s why Americans should worry about Chinese-processed chicken on their kids’ school lunch tray:

  • Rat and other small mammal meat has been sold to Chinese consumers as lamb.
  • Chinese poultry supplier provided Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants in China with chicken fattened by large quantities of illegal drugs.
  • The FDA warned U.S. pet owners not to feed their pets jerky treats from China. Since 2007, approximately 600 dogs and cats in the United States have mysteriously died and approximately 3,600 pets have become ill from eating Chinese pet treats containing chicken or duck.

Does anyone else find it ironic that we don’t want to feed our pets treats from China but we’re going to trust them to process chicken that humans would consume?