Back in August 2013, the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) issued a final report regarding the food safety system governing the processing of chicken for export in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The gist of that report was that four Chinese poultry processors were approved to begin shipping a limited amount of processed chicken products to the United States, provided those products were derived from chickens raised in countries that met FSIS standards:
The PRC was added to the list of countries eligible to export processed poultry to the United States with the following stipulation: processed heat-treated poultry products must be derived from flocks slaughtered under (1) the U.S. inspection system or (2) the inspection system of another country eligible to export slaughtered poultry products to the United States.
With all outstanding issues resolved, the PRC may certify a list of establishments eligible to export processed (heat-treated/cooked) poultry products to the United States, as long as the raw poultry is sourced from countries that have been determined by FSIS to have an equivalent poultry slaughter inspection system.
This action followed years of wrangling between the U.S. and China over the export of meat products to each other:
The poultry trade between the United States and China has been contentious for years. Under the Bush administration, the U.S.D.A. moved to allow imports of chicken from China, which has banned imports of American beef since 2003 over worries about mad cow disease.
In response, Congress blocked Chinese chicken exports. China retaliated by slapping huge tariffs on American chicken. The fight ended up at the World Trade Organization, which ruled that the tariffs were too high.
After that, the U.S.D.A. then audited Chinese processing plants, giving its approval for them to process raw birds from the United States and Canada.
The USDA’s action in approving Chinese poultry exports to the U.S. raised concerns among many American consumers, especially given China’s spotty record for product safety, the absence of on-site USDA inspectors, and the lack of a requirement for Chinese poultry exports to bear labels identifying their country of origin:
China does not have the best track record for food safety, and its chicken products in particular have raised questions. The country has had frequent outbreaks of deadly avian influenza, which it sometimes has been slow to report.
Under the new rules, the Chinese facilities will verify that cooked products exported to the United States came from American or Canadian birds. So no U.S.D.A. inspector will be present in the plants.
And because the poultry will be processed, it will not require country-of-origin labeling. Nor will consumers eating chicken noodle soup from a can or chicken nuggets in a fast-food restaurant know if the chicken came from Chinese processing plants.
The USDA approval also raised a host of issues for American consumers about guarantees of food safety:
For starters, how will consumers here know that the processed chicken and turkey that is shipped back to the United States is the same chicken and turkey that was originally sent from the United States or other USDA-approved country in the first place? If USDA inspectors will not be on site in China, how will U.S. consumers know whether or not the poultry has been mishandled during processing, tampered with, or contaminated?
Even if Chinese processing plants have passed a FSIS inspection in the past, what is to guarantee that such sanitary conditions and processing techniques would be the same when China begins processing poultry to be imported back to the United States?
Furthermore, without a country-of-origin label, how will U.S. consumers know whether or not the chicken or poultry product that they decide to purchase and consume came from China? And if no such labeling is required, then how else will U.S. consumers be able to make informed decisions about the chicken or poultry product that they put into their bodies?
In mid-2015, this issue was manifested online as a concern that American-based food companies were laying off workers in the U.S. in favor of shipping their chickens to China for processing, with the results to be re-shipped to the U.S. for sale here:
I just read Tyson is firing 100K workers and sending its chicken overseas to China to be cleaned and packaged and then returned for sale in the United States?
Have you all heard about Tyson? Cutting 75,000 jobs & sending their chicken to China from the United States to be processed in China. Then sent back to America to be sold? BOYCOTT!!
Tyson company is sending Chicken to China to be processed and returned to US for sale.
In substance, these rumors echoed another issue from the same timeframe regarding the acquisition of Smithfield Foods by a Chinese company, Shuanghui International Holdings, which led to similar claims that U.S.-raised hogs would be shipped to China, slaughtered and packaged for sale there, and sent back to the U.S.
Although the August 2013 FSIS report theoretically paved the way for China to process U.S.-raised chickens and ship them back to America, processing giant Tyson Foods told us they are not shipping poultry to China and then re-importing it as claimed in the examples reproduced above:
All of the chicken we sell in the U.S. is raised and processed here in the U.S. The posts being shared on social media channels are a hoax. We have no plans to cut jobs or process chicken in China to be returned to the U.S.
It’s unclear that such activity is actually taking place at all, even on a small scale, as the economics of shipping animals and processed meat products back and forth across the Pacific are questionable:
“To my knowledge,” [FSIS spokeswoman Arianne] Perkins said, “we haven’t received any information from any companies that are interested [in shipping chickens to China for processing].”
Tom Super, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, which represents chicken processors in the United States, doesn’t think there will be much demand for overseas processing.
“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.”
A likelier scenario is that any chickens exported to China from America would be processed and sold there for domestic consumption (not reshipped to the U.S.), and China’s long-term goal is to export chickens raised and processed there to the U.S.:
The notion of sending American chicken to be processed in China and sent back, then, is an interim step in the larger business negotiation.
The tempest is just one move in a larger chess game between the two countries, Siegel said. “In 2003, when there was the scare of mad cow disease here, China closed its market to our beef. Ever since, we’ve been pushing to reopen that market, but first they want us to open our market to their chicken — raised and slaughtered in China.”