American consumers need USDA “on station” to inspect chicken processing as it occurs in China, and a “labeling gap” is putting U.S. food safety at risk, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) suggests in a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. Brown also raised numerous questions with Vilsack about Chinese chicken processors being approved to process chicken raised in the U.S., Canada or Chile and then export the cooked chicken back here. Since the news leaked (just before USDA announced it on Aug. 30) that four Chinese chicken processors are being green-lighted for exporting cooked chicken to the U.S., it’s become one of this nation’s hotter discussion topics. “Given the well-documented shortcomings of the Chinese food safety system, we shouldn’t allow unmarked meat into our markets that is processed in Chinese facilities that are not subject to food safety inspections,” Brown stated in a press release accompanying his letter to Vilsack. “This action could endanger the health and safety of American consumers and potentially undermines confidence in our nation’s food safety standards.” Meat and poultry imported to the U.S. is subject to inspection by the foreign country, which must maintain a food-safety inspection system that is equivalent to USDA’s. “Equivalence” was originally established in 2006 for the People’s Republic of China’s food-safety inspection system for processed poultry after a two-year review by a USDA audit team. At that time, however, no imports of Chinese chicken were allowed. The difference with the latest review is that it opens the door to U.S. imports of processed (cooked) chicken from China, but the poultry could not be raised or slaughtered in China nor would any raw chicken imports be allowed. It means that China would be allowed to process poultry from the U.S., Canada or Chile, which could then be exported as cooked product back to the U.S. Brown last waded into food safety when one of his constituents lost a puppy to contaminated chicken jerky made in China. Here’s his list of questions for Vilsack:

  • When will the first Chinese-processed poultry shipments reach U.S. ports of entry?
  • Is it true that poultry processed in China would be labeled upon reaching our shores and possibly subject to re-inspection, but regulatory exemptions for processed poultry and meats allow labeling to be removed before these products are purchased by American consumers? If so, how might the labeling gap be remedied by USDA?
  • What additional regulatory or labeling steps might USDA take to ensure that American consumers are given all currently available information regarding supply chain safety and country of origin of their meat products (processed and unprocessed)?
  • Has USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service requested that it be able to station its inspectors in Chinese poultry facilities when products destined for export to the U.S. are processed? If not, why not?
  • Will there be intensified port-of-entry inspection of products imported from China under the provisions of the Aug. 30, 2013, FSIS announcement? If so, please identify those measures and the agency responsible for implementation.
  • Is USDA or FSIS also currently working toward approving the shipment of Chinese-origin poultry and other meats (processed or unprocessed) to the U.S.? If so, what is the status of that effort?
  • What, if any, further regulatory or administrative steps are required before the FSIS decision on processing poultry in China is fully implemented?
  • Which U.S, Canadian or Chilean poultry slaughter facilities have been identified by USDA that will ship raw poultry to China for further processing?

Brown is not the only lawmaker attempting to shake USDA’s tree after it opened the door to importing Chinese-processed chicken. U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) says that Chinese food-safety regulations are “terrible.” She says there is no way USDA can keep chickens raised and slaughtered in China from being processed for export, and she fears the country’s use of illegal antibiotics and its ongoing problems with various strains of bird flu. Food Safety News will publish Vilsack’s responses when they become available.