Washington, DC-based Food & Water Watch submitted a citizen petition last week to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) asking that China not be allowed to import processed poultry products into the U.S.

It appears that USDA is moving towards allowing Chinese poultry. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service just published an interim rule in the Federal Register to change avian flu import regulations, a move that could open the door for Chinese poultry exports. FSIS is still required to evaluate China’s food safety practices and the agency would have to determine that the China’s food safety laws and regulations are equivalent to the U.S.

Food & Water Watch believes that USDA’s process for considering China as a potential importer has been “flawed” and the group said last week that a recent Freedom of Information request illustrates that “serious mistakes were made.”

“In the long running saga of whether or not the U.S. should allow poultry processed in China to enter the United States, we now have evidence of instances where the USDA broke its own rules,” said Food & Water Watch’s Executive Director Wenonah Hauter, in a statement. “The USDA’s first responsibility is to protect U.S. consumers from unnecessary food safety risks – not rush through the process to help trade negotiators open the Chinese market to U.S. beef.”

In 2004, an outbreak of bird flu caused both countries to ban each other’s poultry, but China lifted its ban shortly thereafter. The U.S. has not done the same. The World Trade Organization ruled in September that a U.S. appropriations restriction that essentially barred FSIS from moving toward approving Chinese poultry imports was illegal.

As USDA moves forward on the issue, Food & Water watch accused the agency of bending to political pressure. The advocacy group made the following claims about the process:

— In its haste to get a final rule announced in time for a visit to the United States by the Chinese President in 2006, USDA missed required steps in the approval process and failed to send the rule to the USDA Office of Civil Rights for review;

— USDA staff made incorrect public statements that consumers would be able to avoid Chinese poultry imports, despite the fact that country of origin labeling requirements would not apply to processed poultry products;

— Pressure on the USDA to approve the rule was based in part on U.S. efforts to reopen the U.S. beef trade with China, which was banned after mad cow disease was discovered in a cow in Washington State in 2003;

— FSIS provided different sets of data for the potential economic impact of processed poultry imports from China on the domestic poultry industry.

Asked if the agency wanted to respond to the petition, an FSIS spokesman said: “In June 2010, an FSIS team traveled to China to obtain updates on the country’s food safety laws, provide technical guidance and also determine if China’s processed poultry and poultry slaughter inspection systems are equivalent to those of the U.S. Following this, FSIS determined that the documentation provided by China was sufficient to arrange an audit.”

“Following standard procedure, FSIS is analyzing the information collected,” added the spokesman, in an email to Food Safety News. “Petitions are an important part of the government’s policymaking process, and we are committed to responding to them in an informed and deliberate, yet timely, manner.”