This editorial was originally published Sept. 25 on The Lunch Tray. On August 30, the USDA announced that it will allow four Chinese facilities to process poultry raised and slaughtered in the United States, Chile or Canada, and then export the cooked poultry products back into the United States.  The USDA’s move is widely seen as a preliminary step toward eventually allowing China to export its own raw poultry into this country, in exchange for China’s opening up its lucrative beef market to American beef producers. Given China’s troubling food safety record and the fact that its own government official essentially admitted that China can’t live up to the food safety standards of more developed nations, there are those who speculate that the timing of the USDA announcement – the Friday before Labor Day weekend — was not unintentional.  But whether or not the agency was trying to bury this news, the announcement quickly led to an outcry among journalistsenvironmental watchdog groups and Congressional representatives, including New York Senator Charles Schumer (D), Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown (D) and  Connecticut Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D). In the days following the announcement, a few readers asked me if the new USDA policy means that Chinese-processed chicken will appear on American school lunch trays.  On the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) website, I found this helpful Q & A:

Will chicken processed in China be included in school lunches? No. The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service ensures that products included in [sic] school lunch program are produced, raised, and processed only in the United States, its territories or possessions, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, or the Trust Territories of the Pacific Islands.

To parents with little knowledge of how school food programs operate (i.e., the vast majority), this statement from FSIS would seem to settle the question — and provide solid reassurance for those concerned about Chinese-processed chicken being fed to their kids at school. But the FSIS statement is in fact quite misleading. It is true that school districts participating in the National School Lunch Program (the “NSLP,” which also includes school breakfast and after-school snack programs) receive agricultural commodities from the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, and it is true that these products are domestic.  But the USDA is well aware that school districts also procure significant portions of their school food from private vendors, and this method of school food sourcing is entirely omitted from the answer above — despite the blanket “no” response. So the pertinent question is: Can private vendors sell Chinese-processed chicken to schools? I emailed the FSIS and a USDA spokesperson agreed that “schools also make their own purchases” of school food, but she went on to note that such purchases are governed by a “Buy American” regulation which

requires participating schools to purchase domestically grown and processed foods, to the maximum extent practicable. A domestic . . . product is defined to be “. . .  a food product that is processed in the United States substantially using agricultural commodities that are produced in the United States.”

This regulation sounds like a de facto ban on Chinese-processed chicken.  But at the end of her email, the spokesperson also disclosed that under the “Buy American” rule:

[p]roducts that are processed in the United States and comprised of at least 51 percent domestic ingredients are considered domestic.

I have since expressly confirmed with the USDA that this definition of “domestic” would indeed allow Chinese-processed chicken into the school lunch program.  Here’s how:  if, for example, a manufacturer of frozen chicken egg rolls fully assembles the egg rolls in this country, but sources the cooked chicken in the egg rolls from a Chinese processor, the egg rolls are considered “domestic” so long as the Chinese-processed chicken doesn’t comprise more than 49% of the total product. School districts could buy these egg rolls without violating the “Buy American” rule and the egg rolls would not have to bear any country-of-origin labeling to disclose the location of the poultry processing.  And this scenario could easily apply to any chicken-based entree supplied to schools, such as chicken soup, frozen chicken burritos, chicken chili, chicken-stuffed ravioli, and more. I also learned that there’s a second exception to the “Buy American” rule.  In the unlikely event that the economics of chicken processing shift, such that it becomes reliably cheaper for schools to source items like patties and nuggets using Chinese-processed chicken over domestically processed chicken, then schools can freely buy such products, regardless of ingredient percentages. So the bottom line is this: despite the blanket reassurance to the contrary on FSIS’s website, it is entirely possible that Chinese-processed chicken will be used in school meals. It’s also worth noting that, according to the USDA spokesperson, there is no analogous “Buy American” restriction on schools providing evening meals to students, nor does it apply to meals served in day care centers, as both of these programs are part of the Child and Adult Care Food Program rather than the NSLP.  (“School supper” programs are increasingly common; by 2015, an estimated 21 million students will be eating dinner at school.)  Accordingly, it appears that any Chinese-processed chicken product, regardless of ingredient percentages, can be used in these meals as well. Whether Chinese-processed chicken presents a serious concern for parents is open for debate.  According to sources interviewed by Politico, few U.S. poultry producers have expressed interest in processing chicken in China at the present time due to logistical constraints.  If that situation changes, however, parents are unlikely to know about it.  Moreover, because no country-of-origin labeling is required on products containing Chinese-processed chicken, only school districts which expressly obligate vendors to use 100% domestically processed chicken will know exactly what they’re serving to kids. In my opinion, though, parents ought to be far more worried about the possible lifting of the export ban on Chinese-raised and -slaughtered raw poultry.  If raw Chinese poultry enters this country and becomes reliably cheaper than domestic poultry, its use in school food could become widespread under the second exception to the “Buy American” rule noted above.  (And, at any rate, raw Chinese poultry could always be used, up to 49%, in manufactured food items regardless of cost.)  Given that some Chinese poultry farmers allegedly used large quantities of illegal drugs in raising chickens sold to KFC, and given the potential vulnerability of young school children eating such chicken, a lifting of the export ban on raw Chinese poultry is a cause for serious concern. In the meantime, is FSIS intentionally misleading the public on this issue?  I can’t know, of course, but I suspect that in the rush to quell concerns about the August 30th announcement, the FSIS simply failed to vet its school food Q & A with the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, the branch of the agency overseeing child nutrition programs.  Regardless of motive, however, my own questioning of the agency (which began a full two weeks ago) has clearly brought the inaccuracy to its attention — yet, as of this writing, the original statement remains on its website.  

  • yogachick

    Excellent investigative piece! Thank you for writing this! All I can say is, I am glad my kids are vegan and I’ll continue packing their healthy, plant-based lunches at home and sending it with them. I feel terrible for families who rely on the federal lunch program due to financial struggles, and I think this is an absolute outrage!

  • NeedMoarLabeling

    So gross. I don’t care about school lunches; I pack them. And fortunately I buy my poultry from local, so I know where it was raised and processed. And nope, no frozen nuggets at the grocery store…

    What I do worry about is how much of this is likely to end up on our plate from fast food joints like McDonalds and such? I mean, no matter how OCD I want to be about what my family eats, sometimes the DS and DH insist on the occasional McGarbage.

  • Theresa

    Grea article..I am definitely not allowing my children to buy school lunch anymore..this is ridiculous

  • Oginikwe

    And, if the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement
    (TAFTA) are signed, the slogans “Buy American” and “Buy local” will be banned because these treaties demand that all companies are to be treated like domestic firms.

    • LakeLady

      very important point…so many problems with the TPP

  • CRS

    This is a revelation. I am careful to avoid buying food items that I know come from China, but with this kind of USDA weaseling, how can we tell? I sure don’t want my kids eating Chinese-sourced chicken, we have enough trouble with home-grown salmonella. Not to mention the chemical contamination that plagues Chinese soil and water and is bound to get into the chicken.

  • Ariel Bourne

    love seeing this investigative journalism! there is so much more to come on this issue, like whether bird flu will spread because of this, which groups are profiting from this boondoggle, how this got approved the USDA and FSIS, when will it come to your neighborhood home or restaurant, how to avoid it, on and on so keep up the great work! You can be our next Upton Sinclair.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel

      Thanks, Ariel!

  • billmarler

    Posted by Janey Thornton, Deputy Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, on September 25, 2013 at 6:00 PM

    In response to a recent report about chicken served in the
    National School Lunch Program, I wanted to provide some clarification.
    Food safety is one of our highest priorities, and USDA is committed to
    ensuring that food served through the National School Lunch Program is
    both healthy and safe.

    Schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program receive
    some of their foods through the USDA, and the rest is purchased on the
    commercial market. USDA is only involved in the purchases that are made
    through our program, and all of the food provided through USDA is 100
    percent domestically grown and produced.

    When schools make their own purchases, the Richard B. Russell
    National School Lunch Act requires them to purchase domestically grown
    and processed foods, “to the maximum extent practicable.” Schools are
    allowed to consider a product domestic if it was processed in the United
    States, and over half of the ingredients are considered domestic.
    Schools have the option, if they choose, to only purchase products that
    are 100 percent domestically grown and processed.

    It is also important to know that all domestic and imported poultry
    must meet rigorous USDA standards before it can reach the public.
    USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has a stringent inspection
    system in place, which includes increased inspections at port-of-entry
    and annual audits of China’s system for processed chicken. For more
    information about the inspection of imported chicken, I recommend that
    you check out this blog post published yesterday by Al Almanza, the FSIS
    Administrator, on Ensuring Safety of Imported Processed Chicken from China.

    – See more at:

    • greg

      But the ‘equivalency’ standard used by FSIS is based far too often on political science rather than hard science. For example, under FSIS ‘equivalency, Australian and New Zealand beef is imported into the US with a very minimal sampling for E. coli O157:H7 and the other STECs. Domestic beef trim intended for grinding must be sampled according to standards established by BIFSCO (not even a gov’t standard, but at least industry set a standard!), where in a 375g sample of trim is analyzed for those pathogens, and that sample is allowed to represent 10,000 lbs of beef trim. Under ‘equivalency’ Australia and New Zealand collect a 25g sample, far less than 375g, and that sample represents up to 45,000 lbs of beef trim. That provides not only a competitive advantage to Australia and New Zealand, but exposes a vulnerability for potential adulteration with E. coli. Domestic grinders often have to break this 45,000 lbs lot into 10,000 lb lots prior to grinding, at their expense of course. Positive samples for E. coli are then traced back to the origin by FSIS….the domestic supplier that purchased the trim….and traceback stops there. That domestic firm is then provided with s comprehensive food safety assessment, often with a pre-ordained enforcement action, because their HACCP system failed to prevent production of ground beef from adulteration with this pathogen. E. coli is a fecal or ingesta based organism….linked solely and exclusively to slaughter operations, yet the small domestic grinder pays the regulatory price for FSIS-determined equivalence. Can you look into this for the good of the American producers and consumers to level the playing field and provide equivalence based on real science and not politics?

    • and exactly what percentage of Chinese chicken will be inspected? A tiny fraction I’m betting because port inspectors are already overwhelmed. An annual inspection at the factory is not nearly enough, there need to be inspectors on the floor. The USDA is already allowing chicken factory employees to serve as inspectors in the US now. No amount of bureaucratese will disguise the reality that this defies both common sense AND science. And democrats were supposed to be good at this stuff.

    • hu_sna

      Has USDA ever inspected the inspection reports of school cafeteria’s? A few years ago, I brought it to the attention of the food service director of my children’s school district after my son got sick eating the [sic] school lunch and after the school closed down parent access to the school lunch area after they found out I went through food laws and regulations training. I was even told by my daughter’s then Elementary school principal that i could not go into the cafeteria anymore without her walking in there with me!

      In 2011, when I brought it to the attention of Superintendant of this school district, the following year the school ended up getting “clean” inspection reports! So much for Food Safety at public schools and following the Federal code! My son has (and may never) recover from the damage to his gastrointestinal system, however,today, I allow my daughter to buy Ala Carte items, but for an entirely different reason.

    • AudreyA

      I’d feel a lot better Bill if you required labeling of the products. I don’t have any faith in your rigorous government standards (buy any Foster Farms chicken lately?) and when it comes to imports from China, we know that inspectors there are corrupt. The administration’s refusal to label the Chinese processed products says it all. If I don’t know where it’s from, I won’t buy it, and I hope outrage builds in this country over the influx of Chinese foods that are produced under filthy conditions and then presented to us as safe to feed children. How about letting the Chinese feed their own people and our famers provide for us? This is what we get folks, when we allow corporations to buy influence into our political system.

  • Integrated Food Service Consul

    I am trying to make sense of this from the beginning. Why raise poultry here then ship it halfway around the world just to process it and ship it back here. That’s a pretty big carbon footprint let alone opening the door to a whole issue of food safety problems throughout the “flow of food”.

  • Teresa Geib Bacon

    I worked in lunch program only thing healthy is the salad bar and we all know that’s not even good now. Govt food is crap

  • Debra Likes-Schroer

    Brilliant! Thank you for this report and really telling the real truth behind the mistruths. BRAVO!

  • Robert T.

    Schools are permitted to “make their own purchases”. That permits them to “buy local”. It also permits them to buy anything else that appeals to their fashion sense or their sense of thrift. If Bettina is going to force schools to relinquish the right to make their own purchases she reveals her determination to prevent kids being exposed to fresh local fruits and veggies as well as to LFTB or affordable American grown poultry packaged and redistributed from overseas. She comes across as a control freak. Oh, the perils of being a food cop — all those arbitrary and capricious bans eventually come back around to bite you. That’s why rabid foodies are always demanding exemptions and special treatment.

  • Lynne

    Chinese chicken products are killing dogs. Do we want them to kill our children, too?

  • Joanne O’Brien

    leave our food alne! Do not out source any food product from China! Disgusting …..

  • tcdelfin

    This reminds me of the Chinese drywall fiasco. It was inexpensive..and our building market jumped on that band wagon..and look what happened with THAT product! Can you imagine a repeat of this in the food sector? And why in Sam Hill would our schools be buying chicken from a country with a horrendous food contamination and toxicity history? Our dogs are fed better than that..Im with Chuck..this is a no go..and whatever else is being bought in this race to the bottom needs to be routed out as well. Americans have a right to know whats being fed to their school..with their tax part of the First Ladies healthy eating initiative. I doubt seriously Michelle endorses this for one second, let alone would feed that crap to her own daughters, nor yours or mine. Time to get real about this issue.

  • Jimh77

    Talk about the most stupid idea possible, W T F are these A H’s thinking? The USDA is part of the problem along with the CDC and Obama administration to weed out Americans from the population to reduce the numbers. Nothing else makes sense in thinking about this. From the Ebola fiasco, to shipping chicken fro the US to be processed in another Country. W T F kind of mind set comes up with this B S? Our Government has not got our backs. Most stupid Government ever in the history of the US

  • Jimh77

    This is wrong in ever conceivable way.