A little over a month ago, the United States Department of Agriculture, which has maintained a ban on Chinese poultry since 2004, announced that poultry imports from China were back in business. The announcement received none of the usual fanfare that trade negotiations normally receive; no bellicose statements of accomplishment by trade representatives, no big press meetings or justifications of how this new trade arrangement would benefit both countries and bring the two economies closer together.
Instead, the announcement came in the form of a simple letter addressed to China’s Deputy Director General of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, Li Chunfeng, noting that “as all outstanding issues have been resolved, the [People’s Republic of China] may proceed with certifying a list of poultry establishments as meeting the [Food Safety and Inspection Service] requirements.” After this step was fulfilled, the letter said, the country would then be permitted to start exporting processed chicken to the United States, “under the conditions established in FSIS’ April 2006 final rule.”
That rule stated that only poultry slaughtered in an FSIS approved facility could be exported to the United States, i.e., facilities in the U.S., Canada or Chile. China’s role however, would be just as intrinsic to U.S. poultry production as any other cog in the wheel: it would be able to provide the facilities in which to process chicken products and then send it back to the U.S. for distribution.
What is interesting about this quiet arrangement is its origin. The U.S. has had a ban on Chinese poultry for the past nine years because of concerns that emerged during the avian flu outbreak of 2003-2004. China has the fifth-highest incidence of avian flu in the world. Its mortality rate is considerably less than Pakistan or Egypt, but today, in 2013, it continues to struggle with the problem that had initiated the ban in the first place.
And poultry imports from China are not a new phenomenon. The two countries reciprocally exported meat products until the height of the H5N1 outbreak, at which time they both imposed bans in order to restrict the importation of contaminated poultry.
But other concerns have also been raised about Chinese meat and dairy products. The death of more than 500 dogs and cats in North America that was linked to jerky produced in China, and the melamine milk scandal that plagued the Asian nation years earlier, have heightened consumer concerns about foods imported from China.
China has already lifted its ban against poultry raised or slaughtered in the U.S. that it had imposed during the avian flu outbreak. The U.S. however, has not reciprocated, which may be one of the reasons for this intriguing trade arrangement. The American Meat Institute Foundation notes that there is little chance of someone catching H5N1 from processed meat. No doubt the rationale at the center of USDA’s letter is that the product’s source will have been generated by federally approved facilities that don’t have a history of avian flu. Since heat-treating the meat over the temperature of 165 F presumably kills the virus, transmission of H5N1 is minimized. But is the process enough for the discerning American consumer that is growing intolerant of food labels that don’t offer the country of origin?
And is it enough at a time when federal oversight has been cut back to minimum by a government shut down. The architects of this agreement probably couldn’t have foreseen the insanity of a government stoppage when the agreement was proposed. But then, that’s why we have agencies like USDA: to step up to the plate and ensure consistency in oversight when problems like shutdowns, disease outbreaks and other problems take hold.
The trade agreement also turns a blind eye to climate change issues. While the U.S. government continues to encourage smart energy usage across the globe, we’ll also be shipping our meat back and forth to Asia, raising the carbon footprint with each order of chicken nuggets.
Will those carbon emissions be factored into a cap and trade system that is accounted for by China’s industries (or our producers)? Should trade agreements that tiptoe lightly around historic trade protocol be allowed to move forward if the end result is a higher carbon footprint, less oversight and more consumer angst about its origin?
Perhaps these are questions that now need to be factored into the USDA’s “business as usual” protocol for the 21st century, when what we produce and where we process it matter as much to climate change and food security as the choices that consumers make at home.