WASHINGTONU.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to take additional measures to ensure the safety of chicken that is exported from China to the United States.
The agency should conduct annual audits of China's inspection system and approved processing facilities as well as re-inspect Chinese processed poultry, Schumer wrote in a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack.
USDA last month gave China approval to export processed, cooked chicken to the United States. Chickens raised in the United States will soon be allowed to be processed at four plants in China and sold to U.S. consumers, Schumer observed.
In a news release, Schumer expressed concerns that "lax enforcement" could expose Americans to foodborne illness. The senator cited several examples of contaminated food in China including more than 2,000 complaints that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has logged, referencing dogs that have fallen ill or died from eating chicken-jerky dog treats made in China.
Schumer also cited a 2010 audit of China's food-safety system in which USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) found a number of problems, including failure to test for microbiological contamination.
"Without ongoing and adequate inspectors on site at these processing plants, there is no way to be certain that these recent issues do not still exist or will not reemerge," Schumer wrote in the letter. "Chinas history of weak enforcement of food safety regulations and laws makes it deeply troubling that U.S. poultry will be processed in Chinese plants absent onsite U.S. inspectors to guarantee that food safety laws and regulations are in fact equivalent to the United States. Consumers must be assured that not only is chicken processed according to U.S. standards, but that the chicken they consume does not contain any Chinese poultry and entirely comes from approved sources."
Responding to Schumer's letter, a spokesperson for FSIS said the agency will conduct re-inspections at the port of entry for processed chicken coming from China into the United States.
"FSIS is committed to ensuring the safety of processed poultry from China and the agency will make sure imported product is safe by conducting annual audits of China's food-safety system for processed poultry," the spokesperson added.
Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) also has questioned Vilsack over measures to ensure the safety of chicken coming from China. In a letter to him, she stated she remained "deeply concerned that your department is moving toward potentially granting equivalence to Chinas slaughtering plants, which would ultimately lead to the export of Chinese poultry to the United States."
FSIS recently revealed that it "has determined that China's poultry processing inspection system is equivalent to that of the United States, and cooked chicken imported from China would be processed under equivalent conditions as in the United States." The agency has noted it will monitor China's poultry processing system every year as part of its measures to ensure the chicken meets food-safety standards.
FSIS's findings are documented in an audit report stemming from a March 4-19 audit of China's poultry processing inspection system. FSIS examined China's food-safety program in the areas of government oversight, statutory authority and food-safety regulations, sanitation, hazard analysis and critical control points, chemical residue programs and microbiological testing programs.
"Based on the analysis of the corrective actions submitted by the PRC [People's Republic of China] in response to the 2010 audit and the results of the 2013 audit, FSIS concludes that the CCA [Central Competent Authority] has adequately addressed all previously identified concerns," FSIS stated in an executive summary of the audit report.
Although China is eligible to export chicken, the food must be fully cooked before it is exported and chickens that are raised or slaughtered in China are ineligible for exports to the United States even if such chickens have been processed.
Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, a public interest group, contends USDA's decision puts American consumers at risk. Not only is China's "food-safety system" still permeated "with serious deficiencies", Americans won't know where the chicken came from because there is no country of origin labeling requirement for the processed food, she said in a prepared statement Aug. 30.
It has been no secret that China has wanted to export chicken to the U.S. in exchange for reopening its market for beef from the U.S. that has been closed since 2003 due to the diagnosis of a cow in Washington State with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease," Hauter declared. "Todays audit report reveals yet again that USDA is willing to allow trade to trump food safety."