I think we need to have an adult conversation about the People’s Republic of China and food safety.
In the 41 years since Dick Nixon and Henry Kissinger went to Beijing for tea with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, the U.S.-China relationship has been largely based on economic interests.
And, while I am fairly certain that I remember watching the foursome dining on chicken and pork dishes, everyone notes how herky-jerky the trading relationship has been when it comes to meat. For example, China halted purchases of U.S beef a decade ago over the discovery of one “mad cow” in the U.S.
But, this summer, there’s been some new developments involving both pork and chicken. The U.S. pork producer, Smithfield Foods, was sold to Shuanghui International Holdings. It is the largest purchase in history by a Chinese company of an American company.
Shareholders are expected to approve the $4.7-billion deal this week, but it stirred political controversy for much of the summer over questions about food safety and employment in the U.S.
Larry Pope, Smithfield’s chief executive officer, told a Senate hearing that the takeover was due to growing demand for meat in China and that it would result in more employment in the U.S.
Just ahead of the Smithfield deal going final, there came the announcement by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service that, not only was China’s food-safety system deemed to be equivalent of USDA’s, but four of its chicken-processing plants are approved to export cooked poultry products to the U.S., so long as the chickens are raised and slaughtered in the U.S., Canada or Chile.
USDA’s chicken announcement brought even more political reaction than the sale of the big pork producer. American writers have called it everything from an “invasion” of Chinese chickens to death of the Chicken McNugget. To be sure, there were serious discussions of the issues involved, such as the one in Wired by “Superbug” author Maryn McKenna.
Comments posted to these stories have often been nasty, directly or indirectly taking positions along the lines that China does not really have a serious food-safety structure and/or that we cannot trust it and that we shouldn’t be associated with it or engaging with it in any way.
Let’s take it apart. Is there anyone out there who thinks that China is not capable of establishing and maintaining a complex 21st-century food-safety regulatory system?
I’m not sure how to respond to anyone who believes that. It means you have to believe that, even though the Chinese outnumber us in advanced degrees in science and technology, they cannot figure out how to keep chicken nuggets safe.
I do understand not trusting China’s food-safety system. While I am confident of its technical prowess, China’s closed political system makes it impossible for outsiders to really know about its crisis decision-making.
That shows up in every food-safety crisis involving China, big or small. It went from covering up to executing some of those responsible for the Melamine scandal five years ago, giving outsiders whiplash along the way.
And there’s been no shortage of food-safety stories coming out of China since the Melamine scandal. We learn more about some than others.
But do we have any choice other than to engage with China’s food-safety regime? Let’s face it, it’s the only choice and it’s completely in our own interest, even if we never dine on food of Chinese origin.
When new diseases emerge around the globe and routine travel is by jet airplane, you better hope that nobody is keeping secrets. And, when bird flu first emerged, China was a little slow to call in the World Health Organization.
Now as China is at the front of a new strain of bird flu that may spread by human contact, it’s fully integrated with a world race to come up with a vaccine and head off a potential pandemic. So far, there have been 135 cases, resulting in 44 deaths.
That is the real scary thing about this whole chicken story. No matter how many doors we shut between here and China, we are not going to be safe until they are, too.© Food Safety News