Washington – Rep. Rosa DeLauro says she’s not ready to quit her efforts to protect American consumers from imported Chinese chicken, even as the U.S. Department of Agriculture moves to open the door to such exports.

“I think we have to keep at it. I don’t get discouraged,” said DeLauro, D-3rd District.

Under new USDA rules, China will be allowed to process poultry from the United States, Canada and Chile into cooked products that could be exported to the United States. 

“I happen to believe this puts the health of U.S. consumers at risk,” DeLauro said. “We get all kinds of things from China. Their food safety regulations are terrible.”

Last week , the USDA notified China that four of its processing plants were cleared by USDA inspectors. Al Almanza, administrator of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, is in China this week to help finalize plans for the program. 

But DeLauro said there’s no way the USDA can ensure that no Chinese chicken is used in the process. She said China uses illegal antibiotics on poultry and has regular outbreaks of the bird flu, with 44 people dying from the disease this year. She also points to a finding by the Food and Drug Administration earlier this year that thousands of pets in the United States were made sick or died from eating treats containing contaminated chicken from China.

DeLauro sent a scathing letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack this week asking what steps the USDA will take to make sure no Chinese-origin chicken is used in the exports and that the processing plants are clean.

“On-off visits to plants neither make a food safety system safe nor ensure that food safety issues will not arise at these plants in the future,” DeLauro said in her letter.

The Chinese chicken issue has widened the breach DeLauro, a passionate food safety advocate, has with the USDA.

“We don’t know what the hell we are getting,” DeLauro said. “The USDA is more concerned with trade than food safety.”

DeLauro was successful in sponsoring a law in 2006 that defunded USDA inspections of Chinese poultry, which in effect banned imports from that country.

China retaliated by temporarily banning U.S. poultry exports. Then the World Trade Organization determined the U.S. law was an unfair trade barrier.  

DeLauro’s legislation was not reauthorized, and the USDA, citing concerns with the avian flu, agreed to allow China to export cooked products made with birds from the United States, Canada and Chile.

Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist for Food and Water Watch, a food safety group, said there’s no way the USDA will be able to determine that China doesn’t include home-raised poultry in the products. He also said the USDA’s China policy is motivated by concerns about China staying open to exports of U.S. beef and other products.

“It is trade trumps food safety,” he said.

Corbo also thinks it won’t be long before China is allowed to export raw poultry to the United States and cited previous USDA audits of Chinese processing plants that show deficiencies. The USDA says those problems have been taken care of.

“We don’t think China is ready to do this,” Corbo said.

But the U.S. poultry industry does not fear new competition from Chinese imports and actually welcomes the USDA’s move.

“We certainly hope China will look more favorably at our products,” said Tom Super, spokesman for the National Chicken Council.

China was the United States’ sixth-largest market for poultry in the first six months of this year. Those exports were worth about $102 million. But most U.S. poultry exports to China consist of dark meat, like drumsticks, and chicken feet. The nation’s poultry producers hope the new USDA deal with China will open the door to greater and more varied exports.

Super also said he doesn’t know how China will find it “economically feasible” to import U.S. poultry, process it into a cooked product and export it back to the United States at a profit.

“There are not going to be chicken nuggets in the United States from China,” he said.

Meanwhile DeLauro will continue to press the USDA to keep inspectors at Chinese processing plants. She will also try to persuade Congress to approve a new country-of-origin labeling law that would tell consumers if they are buying a Chinese poultry product.

Under current federal law, raw imports require country-of-origin labeling, but processed products do not.

“We have to have a great outcry,” she said.

DeLauro also pushed back the sale of American pork-producing giant Smithfield Foods by Chinese company Shuanghui International. She said Chinese food products are known to be a threat to public health and that Shuanghui was found to have produced and sold tainted pork.

DeLauro predicted Shuanghui  will co-opt Smithfield’s technology and processing operations “and we are going to see the demise of the U.S. pork industry.”

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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