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Last year, the USDA made a decision that flew under the radar of many American consumers: the agency announced that China’s meat processing plants were equivalent to those in the US, and that it would be perfectly legal for US companies to ship chickens to China for processing, then bring them back to the US for consumption. To add insult to injury, there’s been absolutely no indication that Chinese-processed chicken would require any identifying labels in your local grocery store.
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Given China’s poor food safety record and the enormous carbon footprint involved in shipping such long distances, consumer’s rights groups and even Congressional representatives have started raising alarms about these rules going forward. Incredibly, chicken grown and slaughtered in China isn’t considered equivalent to that found in the US, and is not allowed to be imported into the US. It’s bizarre that that agency could be so concerned about Chinese slaughterhouses that they’re not allowed to do business with the US, but the country’s processing plants are considered acceptable.
While chicken producers have responded to the backlash in recent months by claiming that shipping meat to China for processing is economically unviable, the truth is that this process is already in use in the US seafood market. Even when factoring in the 14,000 mile journey, labor costs in China are so low compared to the US that seafood companies routinely ship their product across the world and back before it ever ends up in your grocery aisle. While a US worker makes an average of $11 an hour, Chinese chicken processors pay only a fraction of that, just $1-2 per hour.
Not only is this move bad news at a time when American workers are just starting to recover from recession, it’s also worrying on a very basic level. Chinese processors have had no shortage of food safety scandals in recent years, with dangerous levels of toxins like mercury and melamine found in baby formula and milk powder, and rat meat being passed off as lamb in Chinese markets. Even American pets have been sickened and killed by tainted jerky treats imported from China. The health and safety risks just don’t seem to be worth the economic savings. Hopefully, with enough negative publicity, the USDA will reconsider its decision — on chicken and on seafood.