Are China’s Chickens Contaminating America’s Plates?

Americans’ favorite meat just got riskier to eat.

A truck loaded with caged chickens at a poultry market on March 29, 2007 in Nanjing, China. (China Photos/Getty Images)
A truck loaded with caged chickens at a poultry market on March 29, 2007 in Nanjing, China. (China Photos/Getty Images)

This summer saw a quiet, but potentially momentous, shift in the economic relationship between the United States and China. It centers on chicken.

On June 27, a 90-pound shipment of cooked chicken from China departed Qingdao in Shandong province and headed to the United States. It will almost certainly be the first of many such shipments, in accordance with a proposal by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in mid-June to allow chickens slaughtered and processed in China to be exported to the United States for the first time since 2004.

It was a step that Chinese policymakers had long requested — and one that had long stirred controversy among their U.S. counterparts, who cited a long history of consumer safety scandals in China. The best-known scandal dates to 2008, when baby formula adulterated with melamine caused 54,000 babies to become sick, resulting in the deaths of six — that was not long after the discovery of melamine-contaminated wheat gluten and rice protein exported to the U.S. market and of Chinese-made dumplings tainted with the insecticide methamidophos.

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) criticized the idea of expanding chicken imports from China as a slap in the face to American consumers, who purchase more chicken than any other meat: “Plain and simple, President Trump and the officials at USDA are prioritizing trade over the health and safety of American families.” Chinese officials and industrial executives, on the other hand, are baffled by the persistent resistance from the U.S. Congress, noting that their chicken processing facilities have a long record of exporting products to Japan and the European Union, where food safety regulations are as tight as in the United States, if not tighter.

The reality is more nuanced. Panic at the prospect of imported Chinese chicken is certainly unwarranted. But any fair assessment of the issue demands that America’s consumer safety authorities, and the hundreds of millions of meat-eaters they serve, become more vigilant.

The Chicken Odyssey

While it takes only 11 hours by air to transport the chicken meat from Qingdao to Los Angeles, it took 14 years for cooked poultry from China to return to the United States — an odyssey compounded by politics, protectionism, and public health concerns. In early 2004, during the H5N1 bird flu outbreak, China stopped importing poultry products from the United States. Later, it agreed to call off the ban, but the United States failed to reciprocate.

The primary reason for this was that Congress prohibited the USDA from using any funds to establish or implement a rule allowing imports of Chinese poultry products. Between 2004 and 2008, U.S. chicken exports to China saw a nearly 2,000 percent increase, from 36 million pounds to 734 million pounds, but China’s chicken meat exports to the U.S. remained at zero. Upset by this trade imbalance, some Chinese business leaders called for the government to inflict equivalent retaliation. In response, China has maintained high tariffs on U.S. poultry exports despite a 2013 World Trade Organization finding that the duties breached WTO rules. In June 2009, China also filed a complaint with the WTO, which later ruled that the U.S. ban fundamentally violated relevant WTO rules. Amid fears of a tit-for-tat trade war, Congress lifted the ban on Chinese-processed poultry, on the condition that China would pass USDA on-site audits and sanitary inspections. While the first audit revealed that China failed to comply with U.S. standards, the second audit found that China had corrected all issues identified in the previous audit. This paved the way for the USDA to lift the ban on processed Chinese poultry in August 2013. Due to lingering food safety concerns, though, the U.S. has only allowed the importation of poultry products that are processed but not slaughtered in China. The new proposed plan would allow China to export poultry products from birds raised and slaughtered there.

But even staunch defenders of free trade cannot brush off the concerns about food safety issues associated with Chinese poultry. Historically, China’s food safety record has been poor, if not terrifying. Between 2003 and 2014, at least 37 fake and toxic food safety scandals were reported in Chinese media.

Over the past two or three years, however, the Chinese government has undertaken some important steps to improve food safety in China, including the promulgation of a revised Food Safety Law in 2015, which was touted as China’s toughest food safety law to date. Since then, major food safety scandals have rarely been reported. Government-sponsored surveys also suggested growing consumer confidence in food safety in China. The improvement in China’s food safety is indicated by results of food safety inspections conducted by AsiaInspection, a China-based quality control and compliance company, which found that about 40 percent of the factories it inspected in China in 2015 failed to meet health and safety standards, compared with 48 percent in 2014.

But as a 2016 report prepared by some of the country’s leading food safety experts acknowledged, sustained food safety risks are still present in stages of production, processing, distribution, and consumption. The government’s regulatory capacity in food safety remains weak. Efforts to merge the functions of several bureaucratic agencies (food and drug safety, quality inspection, and administration of commerce and trade) into one market supervision administration have only undercut the role of food safety regulators. In one county, the new administration of market and quality supervision has a total staff of only 37 (including 14 in leadership positions), who have to regulate over 1,000 catering businesses in the county seat alone.

The capacity gap is further widened by the lack of independent press and civil society oversight of food safety. Even China’s own food safety chief admitted in February 2017 that there were still “complicated and severe problems” in China’s food safety system. Indeed, China’s Food and Drug Administration found 500,000 instances of illegal food safety violations in the first three quarters of 2016. As a group of Chinese scientists pointed out, in terms of food safety, “Nowhere has that situation been more complex and challenging than in China, where a combination of pollution and an increasing food safety risk have affected a large part of the population.”

How (Un)Safe is Chicken Meat from China?

Unlike with other food products, the safety of poultry meat is particularly a concern due to the frequent outbreaks of avian flu, which can infect people who are exposed to infected poultry. Beginning in 2013, China has experienced five waves of H7N9 outbreaks, with the most recent one (2016-2017) the most severe. In January 2017 alone, nearly 200 people were infected, leading to 79 deaths. The surge in H7N9 infections and deaths led the government to shut down live poultry markets across the country in February.

Because the newly proposed trade deal concerns only cooked poultry, which eliminates the safety risk from viruses or bacteria in the raw meat, the most significant risk of new poultry imports from China isn’t avian flu but contamination by bacteria or additives during the production and packaging process — when the poultry is not cooked properly, for example, or when it is adulterated intentionally (though illegally), or when there is some type of cross-contamination. This continues to be an issue in China. In 2015, nearly one-quarter of the products from China that were deemed unqualified by Chinese food inspectors failed due to an overuse of additives; intentional adulteration accounts for another 1.2 percent of the unqualified sample products. Contaminated chicken meat is hard to trace to the source, because cooked poultry is considered a processed food item and is excluded from country-of-origin labeling requirements in the United States.

When it comes to poultry raised in China, chicken meat may also contain heavy metals and veterinary drug residues that have harmful health effects. According to a report from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in 2013 more than 50 percent of the 162,000 tons of antibiotics used in China were for veterinary use — and each year, over 50,000 tons of antibiotics are released to the environment. The concentration of antibiotics in China’s main rivers is 2.5 times higher than the level in U.S. rivers. This is alarming: According to the CDC, each year 2 million Americans get sick and 230,000 die of an infection that is resistant to antibiotics. In 2014, China began to outlaw the overuse of antibiotics for aquaculture use, but it admits to lacking effective regulation over antibiotics production and distribution. The government recently announced a plan to increase surveillance, oversight, and monitoring of poultry and livestock to decrease the presence of antibiotics residues by 2020, although how it will be implemented remains to be seen.

Heavy metal concentration in Chinese poultry is likely also high due to environmental pollution, especially from widespread coal burning, which releases lead, mercury, and arsenic that contaminates air and soil and ends up in animal feed and animal meat, posing threats to food safety.

But the issue of unsafe poultry products may not be unique to China. As Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist at Food & Water Watch, indicated at a recent briefing on Capitol Hill, raw chicken produced in Chile (which China imports to process and export to the United States) is not necessarily safer than Chinese raw chicken. In 2013, after determining shipments of poultry from Chile contained dioxin, the USDA had to ask importers to hold chicken products from the country for re-inspection.

Does Chinese Chicken Pose an Imminent Threat to U.S. Food Safety?

So chicken raised in China does pose a safety risk to U.S. consumers. But the critical question is whether that risk is big enough to be worth taking seriously. And that requires an understanding of how productive the Chinese poultry industry is compared with its competitors — and how those competitors will respond to the new market entrant.

China is the second-largest poultry producer in the world (after the United States), with annual poultry production of 180 million tons. Moreover, it’s been reported that in the absence of USDA inspectors, Cargill’s slaughterhouse in China can process 225 chickens per minute, much higher than the processing speed of its counterpart in the United States (140 per minute). Out of a fear of Chinese chicken dominating the U.S. market, some American domestic chicken producers have already formed an alliance with U.S. consumer groups and legislators to highlight the dangers of importing Chinese chicken.

Despite the competitiveness of the Chinese poultry industry, it is unlikely that we will see an influx of Chinese poultry products into the U.S. market anytime soon. First, the proposed rule change comes from the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, but in order to finalize the USDA proposal of importing chicken slaughtered in China, more political and technical hoops need to be jumped through. To the extent it took another four years for cooked poultry sourced from Chile to arrive in the United States, it might take even longer for poultry of Chinese origin to appear on U.S. consumers’ dining tables. Second, the USDA approval is not a permanent pass for Chinese poultry products: The USDA will continue to audit Chinese facilities on an annual basis and all such products will be subject to re-inspection at the U.S. port-of-entry by Food Safety and Inspection Service inspectors. There is no guarantee that China will pass the audit, which itself is not immune to political pressures. It is not hard to imagine a single food safety incident associated with Chinese poultry playing into the hands of those against the trade deal, who in turn would use the case to (again) shut down the doors of the U.S. market to Chinese poultry.

Third, the volume of Chinese poultry is unlikely to be significant in the U.S. market, at least in the short run. Thus far, China still cannot export raw poultry to the United States because the USDA has classified China as a region affected with Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza. The trade volume is also limited by the ban on imported Chinese chicken being served in school meals. In July, in response to the USDA proposal, Congresswoman DeLauro also introduced bipartisan legislation that would prevent Chinese chicken from being used in federal nutrition programs.

Furthermore, in the current atmosphere of economic nationalism, not all U.S. companies are enthusiastic about importing Chinese chickens. Tyson Foods, for example, has announced that it has no plans to raise or process chicken in China to be returned to the United States. On the Chinese side, under the current deal the poultry will be processed in only four facilities in China’s Shandong province. Even if the USDA proposal is finalized, China reportedly intends to certify only five slaughter sites to provide poultry to the designated processing plants that will export cooked poultry products to the United States. That may explain why China estimates that it will export up to 324 million pounds of cooked chicken annually to the United States over the next five years, which is only 2.6 percent of total U.S. chicken meat production over the same period.

The volume of Chinese poultry in the U.S. market may be small, but that does not mean that U.S. policymakers should turn a blind eye on safety issues associated with Chinese food imports. Given the structural causes of food safety in China as well as the globalized food supply chain. U.S. President Donald Trump could have used his visit to strengthen U.S.-China cooperation in building a robust food safety regulatory system and to push for sending more U.S. personnel to China to conduct increased on-site inspections. Individual U.S. companies should also be encouraged (if not required) to label their individual products with country of origin. The United States may be importing Chinese chicken, but the food safety risks can be managed, if not eliminated.

Yanzhong Huang is senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations

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