Meat/Poultry Inspection

Proposal to Authorize Chinese Chicken Imports Sets the Stage for Food Safety, Public Health Fiascos

Country-of-Origin Labeling Laws Would Not Apply to Proposed Products, Leaving Consumers in the Dark

Washington D.C. — The Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) today released a proposed rule that would allow the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to export cooked chicken products derived from poultry slaughtered in the PRC. FSIS had previously, in 2014, certified four Chinese facilities to export processed poultry products to the U.S., but only if the facilities used raw chicken from sources in the U.S., Canada, or Chile. Under that rule, no Chinese chicken imports entered the United States. By contrast, FSIS projects that the new proposed rule would usher in millions of pounds of cooked poultry product imports in the coming years, and consumers would find it difficult to avoid these products under current country-of-origin labeling rules.

The proposed rule raises grave concerns for consumers. As the world’s largest consumer of human and animal antibiotics, China has become a major breeding ground for multi-drug resistant “superbugs.”[i] Just a year and a half ago, researchers discovered a gene that confers resistance to colistin—known as an “antibiotic of last resort”—in bacteria from pigs in China.[ii] A study published earlier this year reported that the gene was detected in 5.11% of E. Coli isolates from over 1000 chickens sampled from across China.[iii]

Presumably, proper processing and inspection procedures would assure that cooked chicken exported from China would not spread dangerous pathogens, but China’s ability to assure food safety has been called into question by scandal after scandal in recent years.[iv] In 2014, a U.S.-owned meat factory operating in China sold out-of-date and tainted meat to clients including McDonald’s, Starbucks, KFC and Pizza Hut chains.[v] Before that, authorities revealed in 2011 that they had discovered that 12 million tons of rice had been tainted with toxic metals. And perhaps most notoriously, in 2008, more than 13,000 children fell ill after drinking melamine-tainted milk.[vi]

Despite these highly-publicized food safety catastrophes, FSIS maintains that the PRC’s food inspection system, at least for poultry, is “equivalent to the system that the United States has established.” Consumer advocates are skeptical that the agency’s audit of Chinese facilities is as thorough as the law requires. For example, to be eligible to export, processing facilities must comply with various U.S. standards, including maximum line speeds, which ensure that inspectors have sufficient opportunity to check for signs of improper sanitation or other food safety hazards. One of the five facilities on which the proposed rule is based, however, has openly operated at higher line speeds.[vii]

For now, China will still not be allowed to export raw poultry to the U.S., because USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has classified China as a region affected with Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza. This restriction is meant to protect the health of the U.S. livestock population, but it has important implications for human health. As of June of this year, a particularly virulent strain of bird flu, H7N9, had killed 268 people in China.[viii] By increasing the opportunities for cross-contamination, and moving closer to approving imports of raw poultry meat from China, the FSIS proposed rule raises concerns that Americans may soon face similar epidemics.

Contact: Thomas Gremillion, 202-939-1012


The Safe Food Coalition is made up of consumer, public health and victim groups who work on issues related to food, and organizations representing labor in the food industry.

[i] http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/08/china-tackles-antimicrobial-resistance

[ii] https://www.nature.com/news/resistance-to-last-ditch-antibiotic-has-spread-farther-than-anticipated-1.22140

[iii] http://aac.asm.org/content/61/5/e01204-16.abstract

[iv] See, e.g. Nancy Huehnergarth, “China’s Food Safety Issues Worse Than You Thought” Food Safety News (July 11, 2014);  http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2014/07/chinas-food-safety-issues-are-worse-than-you-thought/#.WTGKpmgrKUk; Katie Hunt. “Why Chinese Food Safety is So Bad” CNN, (Jan. 16, 2015), http://www.cnn.com/2015/01/16/world/china-food-safety/index.html

[v] See, e.g. Whitney Filloon. “Ten Jailed in China for Supplying Expired Meat to McDonald’s, KFC” (Feb. 1, 2016) https://www.eater.com/2016/2/1/10887058/china-tainted-meat-kfc-mcdonalds-prison

[vi] http://edition.cnn.com/2013/05/31/business/china-food-tainted-shuanghui-maggots/

[vii] “Cargill’s new processing plant running in China,” WorldPoultry, Mar. 9, 2016. http://www.worldpoultry.net/F2R/?returnurl=%2fMeat%2fArticles%2f2014%2f9%2fCargills-new-processing-plant-running-in-China-1600450W%2f

[viii]  http://af.reuters.com/article/commoditiesNews/idAFL3N1J92UN