Thanks to our petition (307,000-plus signatures and rising), millions of Americans have learned that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is about to allow U.S chickens to be sent to China for processing and then shipped back to the U.S. for human consumption. This arrangement is particularly alarming given China’s appalling food safety record and the fact that there will be no on-site USDA inspectors in those plants. In addition, American consumers will never know that chicken processed in China is in foods like chicken soup or chicken nuggets because there’s no requirement to label it as such. One frequent refrain we’ve heard is that no U.S. company will ever ship chicken to China for processing because it doesn’t make economic sense. This was precisely the claim made by Tom Super, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, in a recent Houston Chronicle article about our petition:

“Economically, it doesn’t make much sense,” Super said. “Think about it: A Chinese company would have to purchase frozen chicken in the United States, pay to ship it 7,000 miles, unload it, transport it to a processing plant, unpack it, cut it up, process/cook it, freeze it, repack it, transport it back to a port, then ship it another 7,000 miles. I don’t know how anyone could make a profit doing that.”

Well, guess what? It clearly does make economic sense because this process is already being used for U.S. seafood. According to the Seattle Times, domestically caught Pacific salmon and Dungeness crab are currently being processed in China and shipped back to the U.S., all because of significant cost savings:

“…  fish processors in the Northwest, including Seattle-based Trident Seafoods, are sending part of their catch of Alaskan salmon or Dungeness crab to China to be filleted or de-shelled before returning to U.S. tables.

“There are 36 pin bones in a salmon and the best way to remove them is by hand,” says Charles Bundrant, founder of Trident, which ships about 30 million pounds of its 1.2 billion-pound annual harvest to China for processing. “Something that would cost us $1 per pound labor here, they get it done for 20 cents in China.”

Considerably lower Chinese labor costs are what make the arrangement profitable, even when factoring in round-trip shipping costs over 14,000 miles. Here’s how it works:

The fish are de-headed and gutted on the ship in the Bering Sea, then frozen and sent to China, says Douglas Forsyth, Premier Pacific’s president. Once there, they are boned, skinned and cut into portions of 2 ounces to 6 ounces, he says …

Even factoring in 20 cents a pound in transportation costs, processing in China is still cheaper for the most labor-intensive fish, says Trident’s Bundrant.

So let’s turn back to the question of U.S. chicken. The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that American poultry processors are typically paid a little more than $11 per hour on average. While we could find no analogous statistics for Chinese poultry workers, this recent news account of a fire at a Chinese poultry processing plant quotes a worker as saying he earns 2,000 yuan ($326) per month, or between $1-2 per hour. So, under the Pacific salmon/Dungeness crab model, it seems perfectly plausible that American poultry suppliers will find it makes good economic sense to ship U.S. chicken all the way to China and back for processing. But, as we state in our petition (along with co-petitioner Barbara Kowalcyk), good economic sense should never trump valid concerns about food safety. And China’s food safety system, which is decades behind ours, can only be described as horrific, as evidenced by just some of the more recent food safety scandals in that country:

Now that it’s clear that processing U.S. chicken in China makes sense economically, it’s even more critical that Congress, President Obama, and his administration stop chicken from, or processed in, China from reaching our supermarkets and the meals we feed our schoolchildren by: (1) Ensuring that Chinese-processed chicken is not included in the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, Child and Adult Care Food Program and Summer Food Service Program; and (2) Preventing funds from being used to implement any rule that would allow poultry raised or slaughtered in China to be exported to the United States. If you haven’t signed and shared our petition, please take a moment to add your signature. Every name that’s added puts pressure on our legislators to put the health and safety of America’s children ahead of the interests of food manufacturers. Thank you.