Chinese Chicken Is Coming to the United States

A year after allowing processed poultry imports, the USDA is now allowing fresh and frozen birds too.

(Photo: Lynn Gardner/Creative Commons)

Nov 8, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

It took a little more than a year, but the fears of many food-safety experts and xenophobes have come to pass: You may soon be eating chicken that was raised and slaughtered in China.

Last year, the USDA quietly announced (on the Friday before a holiday weekend) that it would allow imports of chicken that was processed in China but had been killed elsewhere—say in the U.S. or Canada. While federal officials would oversee the slaughter, no USDA inspectors would be present when the birds were processed in the four approved Chinese facilities.

Although globalization has made circuitous, international paths for food products appear almost normal, this seemed like a strange prospect—even in light of China’s cheap labor market. As the The New York Times reports, no American poultry firm has shipped meat to be processed into food products in China.

Rather, nearly everyone assumed the move was a half measure.

“Experts suggest that this could be the first step toward allowing China to export its own domestic chickens to the U.S.,” World Poultry, a trade publication, wrote last year.

“This is the first step toward allowing China to export its own domestic chickens to the U.S.,” Tony Corbo, a Food and Water Watch lobbyist, told The New York Times last year.

It was indeed the first step: The USDA will now allow processed, refrigerated, and frozen Chinese poultry to be sold in the United States. Food-safety advocates are furious.

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“There have been scores of food safety scandals in China, and the most recent ones have involved expired poultry products sold to U.S. fast-food restaurants based in China,” Wenonah Hauter, Food and Water Watch executive director, said in a statement. “Now, we have FSIS moving forward to implement this ill-conceived decision, and it has not even audited the Chinese food safety system in over 20 months, in direct contradiction to what it promised it would do to protect U.S. consumers.”

Thanks to a number of Chinese food-safety scares and the perception of lax regulations, Hauter’s concerns also run deep among U.S. consumers. If you type “China chicken” on your way to doing a search for production numbers, Google will kindly suggest “China chicken scandal.” We’ve even convinced the algorithm to be fearful.

But in many ways, allowing Chinese chicken imports is a return to norms that have been nearly forgotten during a lingering trade war that began in 2003. That’s when China said it would no longer allow U.S. beef imports after an American steer tested positive for mad cow disease, sparking a series of disputes over the U.S.-China meat trade.

But unlike the perplexing prospect of sending American poultry to be made into, say, chicken soup in China, food companies in China will certainly take advantage of this new market.