Bad news for parents: The country that once knowingly sold poisoned baby formula that sickened 300,000 infants might soon be processing the chicken in your kids’ school lunches.
If you're a thoughtful consumer, there's probably one country of origin you avoid like the plague when you're doing your grocery shopping: China. This, after all, is the country where, in 2008, melamine-tainted infant formula killed six babies and poisoned about 300,000 more; where, in 2009, "lamb" sold to Shandong-area businesses was found to actually be duck meat marinated in goat and sheep urine; where cooking oil is regularly scooped up from sewers and garbage disposals to be used again; and where, earlier this year, poultry processors knowingly sold expired chicken to major fast-food chains such as KFC, McDonald's, and Burger King. China's food safety record is a notorious wreck, but chicken processed in its plants might soon make its way into American prepared foods and onto kids' school lunch trays.
Last week, the USDA's Food and Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) announced that China had completed paperwork that certifies four of its poultry processing plants to import chicken from the US, Canada, and Chile. The four plants will be able to break down and cook the chicken, then ship it back to the US as an ingredient that can be included—unlabeled—in a host of common foods, from canned soup to fast-food chicken nuggets. Even factoring in the chicken's 14,000-mile round trip journey, the process will likely interest budget-minded US poultry producers, who have to pay their own workers around $11 per hour; plant workers in China, by contrast, only earn around $1-2 per hour. But because Chinese processed chicken is eligible for inclusion in the National School Lunch Program—a fact that the USDA initially denied, and then admitted to—food safety advocates are speaking out against the proposal.
"This is a real concern," said Bettina Elias Siegel, a food policy commentator and author of the blog The Lunch Tray. In 2012, Siegel's online petition to get the USDA to stop using so-called "pink slime" in school lunches was signed by almost 259,000 people and led the USDA to offer school districts a choice of beef either with or without the meat-based filler. Now, Siegel is taking on Chinese processed chicken, which she believes might pose an even greater safety risk to children; her latest petition has more than 327,000 signers.
"Children, along with older people, are the most vulnerable when it comes to issues of food safety," Siegel said. "And it's undeniable that China's food safety record is terrible."
Last August, when the USDA first announced its intention to work with Chinese poultry processing plants, Siegel reached out to the agency to find out if that chicken would be used in school lunches. At first, she said, a representative told her that under a "Buy American" regulation, schools making private purchases to supplement the agricultural commodities they receive from the USDA would be obligated to buy domestic products. But when she dug a little deeper, Siegel was told that a "domestic" product only has to contain 51 percent domestic ingredients. That means that ingredients processed abroad—like the Chinese chicken—can make up the other 49 percent of school lunch items, such as burritos, chili, ravioli, and more. And because only raw meat—not processed, cooked meat—needs to be labeled with its country of origin, schools likely won't be aware of what they're buying and serving to kids.
"No one will know," Siegel said. "And I believe that consumers, as well as the school districts, have a right to know."
Transparency is an issue that also concerns Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist at the advocacy organization Food & Water Watch. Corbo has been fighting US imports of Chinese chicken since 2005, when the USDA first proposed granting Chinese processing plants "equivalency status," meaning that the facilities are on par with similar plants in the US.
"It's not like we're going to have USDA inspectors over there keeping an eye on what's happening in these plants," he said. "China could very easily sub their own raw poultry into these products, and all we're gonna have is a piece of paper saying that actually, the chicken came from the US."
As Corbo pointed out, the USDA's move to bring Chinese plants into the American fold is just the first step in a politically motivated process to get the country to give the US something in return. In 2003, when mad cow disease was discovered in cattle in Washington state, China enacted a ban on imported US beef that continues to this day. With China's meat consumption on the rise, it makes sense that US beef producers would want to recapture that lucrative market. By starting to accept China's processed chicken, the US is apparently warming to the idea of soon accepting the country's raw, unprocessed poultry—a move that might convince China to lift its beef ban.
"It was apparent to us from the very beginning that this was a political deal, a sort of 'we'll take your beef if you take our chicken,'" Corbo said.
But Siegel, the school lunch blogger, believes that human health should take precedence over political wrangling.
"Do we really want to expose children to health risks in the name of free trade?" she asked. "Most parents would say no to that."