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. Really? 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.

  • johncoryat

    The Chinese food problem has nothing to do with their technical ability to produce a safe product. It’s that the Chinese are kings at cutting corners while nobody is looking. They do it with everything they produce. Chinese food produces will do everything they can to bypass regulations, substitute substandard ingredients and cheat to lower production costs. This is a cultural problem and one that can’t be legislated or inspected away.

    Chinese food imports to the US have to be scrutinized 100%. If we don’t inspect and test every shipment to this country, we will be poisoned by a cut throat businessman trying to save a few dollars. It’s inevitable.

  • overseaschinese

    Anyone who has really been to China would know food safety isn’t a cultural nor a serious issue. It’s a buyer’s issue. Buyers who opt not to pay a premium for safer food is deemed to purchase substandard food quality.

  • Oginikwe

    This must be the corporate adult conversation.

    There is absolutely no reason for us to ship chickens over there, have them process them, and then ship them back. That’s ridiculous.

    However, in keeping with the corporate adult conversation, playing musical chairs with our chicken might make China open up it’s massive beef market to American beef which it banned back in 2003 when BSE was found in a cow in Washington.

    As for China’s food system: Bloomberg said it best (
    ” For more than a decade, China has earned a reputation as one of the world’s worst food-safety offenders. In just the last year, consumers have been confronted with a bird flu outbreak, news of sales of 46-year-old chicken feet and reports of poisonous fake mutton. These are not isolated incidents, but rather the most spectacular instances of a crisis that has become so severe that some consumers now smuggle quantities of infant milk formula from foreign countries into China so as to avoid buying potentially tainted Chinese dairy products.”

  • doc raymond

    Great Post Dan and I agree, especially with your closing thought.

  • overseaschinese

    It wouldn’t happen if buyers are willing to purchase better quality products, rather than force producers to implement cheaper (and unsafe) alternatives to meet its customers’ demand.

    We all know how buyers are always cutting corners to earn their margins and very demanding to producers about price rather than quality. Let’s not fool ourselves.

    • Oginikwe

      The producers who “implement cheaper (and unsafe) alternatives to meet its customers demand” should be put out of business to allow for producers who meet their customers’ demands using safety as their guide to flourish. Until that happens, we will continue to avoid all foods, vitamins, and drugs manufactured and/or processed in China and then exported from China. We can feed ourselves quite well, thank you.

      • overseaschinese

        I can agree with you to a certain extend.

        However, based on experience, retailers would most likely disagree with you due to price wars. If you can’t provide that margin they want, they won’t even consider placing your products on the shelf. Ask any purchasing manager in any retail shop, most of the significant players will subscribe to this model.

        The world’s demand is so great that even the best producer in US and EU will not be able to supply even half of it. Even if the Chinese producers keep to the best standards, which some do, some producers will (temporarily) undercut prices to keep you out of the market. It’d be a tough game in how quickly you’ll run out of cash and lose market share. Some flourish really well, and you’ll be surprised at how magnificent some Chinese facilities are – they even surpass European standards. And these producers also supply to the Top 10 F&B manufacturers in the world; so don’t tell me they aren’t good enough.

        So really, this whole food safety ‘issue’ is extremely challenging. We have to put things into perspective to really tackle this global issue properly. I believe it starts from procurement – from producers to retailers – while some may say it starts from shareholders’ demand for profit.

        We are a food manufacturer in Europe. While I do most of my purchasing in Europe, I also deal directly with China for some ingredients. Though I may be bias, my views are expressed solely based on my experiences.

  • Me

    Bottom line….you get what you pay for……and let’s not kid ourselves (johncoryat)- China is not the only country attempting to “bypass regulation, substitute substandard ingredients and cheat to lower production cost.” The majority of large corporations these days are based on that exact production model.

  • flameforjustice

    I don’t eat chicken of any kind so many would think I shouldn’t and/or wouldn’t care about chicken being exported here to the USA. I do care because I have relatives, friends and fellow citizens who do consume chicken especially this countries children and I don’t want any of them eating any form of chicken from China. Not now or in the future.