China may be moving closer to legally exporting processed cooked chicken to the United States.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has received from China a list of four plants that the country has certified as eligible to export processed chicken here. But before exportation can occur, China must develop a proper export health certificate that demonstrates that the poultry was raised and slaughtered in the U.S., Canada or Chile and that it was cooked to a proper temperature.
At a Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) hearing Tuesday, Daniel Engeljohn, assistant administrator for the Office of Field Operations within USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), stated that China has submitted a draft export health certificate for review by FSIS and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).
Once the agencies agree on language and the Chinese government accepts it, China must inform USDA when it plans to begin shipping the processed poultry to the U.S.
“The agency doesn’t have any information about how much processed product it expects China to ship once certification is up and running,” Engeljohn said.
The hearing was held by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), CECC chairman, and Co-chairman Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) to discuss the safety issues of processed poultry and pet treats from China.
“Americans want to know where their foods come from and want to make sure that everything is being done to keep it safe,” Brown said in his opening statement.
China’s Track Record
“China’s food industry has faced a real crisis of confidence over the past seven years,” Smith said. “Despite government efforts, the number of scandals continue to keep coming. Meat that glows in the dark, exploding watermelons, 40 tons of beans sprouts containing antibiotics, rice contaminated with heavy metals, mushrooms soaked with bleach, and pork so filled with stimulants that athletes were told not to eat it lest they test positive for banned substances.”
In 2008, milk and infant formula was tainted with melamine that sickened an estimated 300,000 people, including 54,000 hospitalized babies — six of whom died. In 2013, Chinese police arrested 900 people for “meat-related offences” — including a gang that was passing off fox, mink and rat meat as mutton.
In January 2014, Walmart had to recall donkey meat sold at some outlets in China after tests showed the product contained fox DNA. Walmart has since announced its plans to triple spending on food safety in China to $48.2 million by the end of 2015, which will go toward additional food testing and supplier audits and expanded DNA testing on meat products.
Currently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is investigating thousands of complaints about pet illnesses it has received since 2007 — mainly in dogs but also in some cats — and which may be associated with the consumption of pet jerky treats from China. So far, more than 1,000 canine deaths have been reported, but FDA has still not identified a specific cause.
Brown also referenced a possible link between animal feed from China and the Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus (PEDv), which, although it does not affect humans or other animals, has wiped out about 10 percent of the U.S. pig population.
One of the key themes of Tuesday’s discussion was whether the U.S. should trust Chinese food processing given, as Brown described it, “China’s poor enforcement of their own laws and rampant corruption.”
“One would think that this issue would be solved already if China transferred resources to food safety from censoring the Internet and cracking down on free speech and political dissent,” Smith suggested. “Transparency is absolutely necessary for any government to protect the health of its citizens and to effectively manage problems related to food and drug safety.”
In addition to his concerns that issues raised by whistleblowers and journalists would be suppressed by the Chinese government, Smith expressed his lack of confidence in the veracity of their equivalency documents.
“The word of the Chinese government is usually not trustworthy,” he said. “It’s not a stretch to say if we rely on them for documentation, that’s an Achilles heel that is huge.”
“It does present a huge dilemma,” Engeljohn responded, but added that USDA’s “on-site audits and our ongoing re-inspection at ports of entry into the United States provide us additional levels of safety.”
For the re-inspection requirement, he said that all of the shipments from China are checked for such things as proper labeling, proper certificates, condition of the products and box count. And, for new countries, there are intensified re-inspections that involve collecting samples for drug residues and microbiological pathogens.
Origin Label Loophole
Brown and Smith also had many questions about whether labels would indicate that the chicken in a product was processed in China.
In his prepared statement, Engeljohn said that “immediate containers of poultry products” imported to the U.S. for human consumption must bear a country-of-origin label.
“Because processed product from China must be cooked, FSIS believes that it is unlikely that the product would be repacked or further processed in this country,” he added.
However, if product is repacked or further processed in the U.S., information that it had originated in China would not be included on the label, although, Engeljohn noted, “it would be repacked or processed under FSIS inspection.”
So, while country-of-origin labeling (COOL) would apply to whole muscle cuts and ground products, it would not apply to processed foods, which Patty Lovera of Food & Water Watch pointed out in later testimony is another reason to avoid eating processed foods.
A “Product of U.S.A.” label on processed food indicates “the majority of ingredients in there would be from confirmed sources that were either slaughtered or processed within the United States,” Engeljohn said in response to Brown’s question about the use of such a label. “But I don’t believe that you could identify that there would no ingredients from another country — particularly if it was from another country that had an equivalent system because, once it comes into the domestic system, it becomes U.S. product.”
After the hearing, Engeljohn told Food Safety News that consumers worried about the origin of ingredients in the processed food they eat “should trust the U.S. system in terms of our food safety program” and that individuals “should establish a relationship with the people that they purchase their products from because you can make known to your retailer what you do or don’t want.”