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Make way for chickens via China

| Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Coming soon to a grocery store near you: chicken from China. Kind of.

The Department of Agriculture ruled recently that poultry processed in China can be sold in the United States. But the birds must be born and raised in the United States, Canada or Chile. Then they're exported to China before being shipped back to the Americas.

Food safety experts worry about the quality of chicken processed in a country notorious for avian influenza and food-borne illnesses. And they predict that China will eventually seek to broaden the export rules to allow chickens born and raised in China.

“I've never been to China, but my impression is it's very polluted and the food isn't always safe,” said Annie Hall, shopping recently at a Kroger's in Atlanta. “We've got chicken farming and processing plants right up the road on I-85. We have enough here already. It doesn't make sense to ship chickens all over the world.”

Poultry officials in Georgia — the nation's top broiler producer — say food-safety fears are overblown. They don't expect a deluge of imported Chinese chickens.

Access to the American market is the quid pro quo, though, for a hoped-for explosion of exports to China.

“Believe it or not, it's something we've been pushing for as an industry for several years,” said Jim Sumner, president of the Stone Mountain, Ga.-based USA Poultry and Egg Export Council. China “is one of our largest export markets and has the potential, by far, to be our largest market, and we don't want to risk upsetting them.”

Food is just the latest commodity to succumb to globalization.

Chinese food exports to the United States — $3.3 billion worth in 2010, according to the Department of Agriculture — grow by about 10 percent annually and are expected to remain on that trajectory for the next decade. Major exports to the United States include vegetables, fruits, grains, meat, fish and fruit juices.

Food & Water Watch, a Washington consumer advocacy group, earlier this year listed five questionable food imports from China: tilapia, cod, apple juice, processed mushrooms and garlic.

Tilapia and cod are raised in fish ponds and dosed with antibiotics and growth hormones. Imported Chinese apple juice reportedly contains three times the federal limit for arsenic in water. U.S. inspectors have also found tainted mushrooms and garlic.

The Communist behemoth raised and shipped 80 percent of the tilapia consumed in this country in 2011, 51 percent of the cod, 49 percent of the apple juice, 34 percent of the processed mushrooms and 27 percent of the garlic.

Horror stories

Food-safety horror stories abound in China. More than 50,000 children were sickened and four died in 2008 after consuming baby formula tainted with melamine, an industrial chemical. Hong Kong authorities discovered eggs contaminated with melamine.

Last March, for still-unknown reasons, 12,000 dead pigs floated down a river leading to Shanghai. Avian influenza, or bird flu, re-emerged in chicken flocks this year, killing 44 people. Nearly half the rice sold in the city of Guangzhou earlier this year was tainted with cadmium, according to news accounts.

The European Union reported that China shipped potatoes infested with insects, ginger laced with salmonella, pumpkin seeds containing glass chips and frozen calamari contaminated by arsenic to Europe last year.

USDA officials halted imports of Chinese shrimp, eel, catfish and carp in 2007 due to high levels of illegal antibiotics and chemicals. Three years later, officials seized thousands of pounds of Chinese honey after finding illegal antibiotics. And this year, more than 500 dogs and a handful of cats died after eating jerky treats made of chicken, according to an investigation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., wrote recently that China's “appallingly poor food-safety record makes it deeply troubling that U.S. poultry will be processed in Chinese plants.”

The United States, of course, isn't immune to food-safety problems. USDA warned this month that salmonella may have sickened nearly 300 people who ate chicken processed in California. And salmonella-contaminated peanuts, turned into peanut products at a South Georgia plant, killed nine people and sickened hundreds more in 2008.

Geographic and economic barriers stand in the way of a Chinese chicken onslaught. The birds must be raised and slaughtered in the United States, Canada or Chile and then shipped halfway around the world to be processed, cooked and packaged before again crossing the Pacific Ocean. No raw chickens can be imported into the United States.

USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, with Congress' blessing, lifted the export ban in late August. Four Chinese processors are eligible to export to the United States. Although USDA inspectors will not visit the Chinese plants, the exports must be inspected upon arrival in the United States.

“Consumers should know that any processed poultry from China will be produced under equivalent food safety standards and conditions as U.S. poultry,” USDA said in August.

‘Who's going to buy it?'

Tom Super, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, hadn't heard of any major distributor signing up for the Chinese birds. He expects only “a minuscule amount” of Chinese imports. Canada, Chile, France, Israel and South Korea are allowed to export chicken parts to the United States, yet 99 percent of the chicken consumed here is raised and processed here.

“Just think of the logistics and economics of it,” said Tom Hensley, president of Fieldale Farms in Baldwin, Ga., which processes 3 million birds a week. “Wherever a chicken is grown, it eats corn and soybean meal, and those two commodities make up 60 percent of the cost of a chicken. Then you've got labor and freight and refrigeration. It ain't going to work. Who's going to buy it?”

Maybe niche Asian food markets at first, said Super, the chicken council spokesman. Food-safety experts worry about what comes next.

“This is actually a foot in the door, a half-step towards their ultimate goal, which is that they'll end up with approval of chickens originating in China,” said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch. “We suspect that this is the end-game.”

Sumner, with the export council, acknowledged that the Chinese will likely seek one day to export whole birds. And there will be no way for consumers to know where their chicken comes from. Processed foods don't require so-called country-of-origin labeling. Chicken wings, chicken noodle soup, chicken nuggets could one day originate in China.

“Labeling is of great interest to consumers who want to know what's in their food,” Lovera said. “And people aren't comfortable already with China as a supplier of their food. Consumers are left out in the cold.”

Market access

Chicken companies, though, get access to a hot Chinese market. Exports to China — everything from breasts and feet to canned meat — slumped badly once Beijing slapped punitive taxes on U.S. chickens in 2011.

China said the tariffs, in some cases doubling the cost of U.S. birds, were in response to illegally subsidized U.S. broilers. Trade analysts, though, said the Chinese were retaliating against U.S. tariffs on Chinese-made tires.

In 2011, the United States shipped $874 million worth of broilers and feet to China and Hong Kong, according to USDA figures.

China imported $680 million of U.S. chicken last year. This year looks little better. Sumner, the export official, labeled the punitive tariffs “crippling.”

The World Trade Organization ruled the taxes illegal earlier this summer. A month later, the United States opened its market to Chinese chickens.

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