The USDA approved four Chinese plants to process chicken that will be sold in the U.S. without any country of origin labeling. Prior to this decision chicken sourced from China was not approved for human consumption in the U.S., only for animal consumption. The fact that 2,200 animals became ill and nearly 360 died as a result of eating tainted jerky treats made with chicken sourced from China didn’t seem to phase the USDA. Are humans next?
Though the USDA claims there is equivalent food quality standard at Chinese plants, no USDA inspector will be present to make sure it’s being enforced.
“Given the well-documented shortcoming of the Chinese food safety system, we shouldn’t allow unmarked meat into our markets that is processed in Chinese facilities that are not subject to food safety inspections,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said in a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, reports Food Safety News. “This action could endanger the health and safety of American consumers and potentially undermines confidence in our nation’s food safety standards.”
Did USDA Officials Cut a Deal?
Chicken sourced from China had formerly been blocked by lawmakers because of that country’s troubles with avian flu. Despite questions about quality standards, some feel that U.S. officials are willing to look the other way on chicken imports so that China will lift restrictions on U.S. beef. Of course, U.S. officials deny such a motivation. China currently imports its beef primarily from Australia, Uruguay, New Zealand, and Canada because of concerns about mad cow disease in U.S. beef.
It’s important to note that the chicken imported from China will only have been processed there–it will be raised and slaughtered in the U.S. or elsewhere. This only calls into question the dark underbelly of chicken production in the U.S.
According to Salon.com, “The vast majority of the almost 300 million egg-laying hens raised in the U.S. every year are kept in cages too small for them to spread their wings, and this practice is beginning to take hold in raising our 8 billion broilers (the ones we eat) as well. The broilers are fed a diet laden with arsenic and antibiotics.” Additionally, a 2009 USDA study found that 87 percent of chicken cadavers were laden with e. coli [PDF].
Antibiotics and Environmental Devastation
Chickens forced to live in horrific conditions can only be kept healthy with inordinate amounts of antibiotics. It’s these antibiotics, used to both fend off disease and to fatten up chickens prematurely, that are causing antibiotic resistance. Each year, more than two million people are infected by drug-resistant germs and 23,000 die of their infections. Overtime, the constant use of low doses of antibiotics allow the surviving bacteria to become resistant, which creates the superbugs that are making us sicker and sicker each year.
And we haven’t even started to discuss the environmental pollution caused by chicken production in the U.S. Producers dispose of manure by spreading it on open fields or cropland. It’s over applied and dangerously managed, contaminating soil and creating water-quality problems.
“In just over 50 years, the broiler industry has been transformed from more than one million small farms spread across the country to a limited number of massive factory-style operations concentrated in 15 states,” said Karen Steuer, who directs Pew’s efforts to reform industrial animal agriculture, in a 2011 statement. “This growth has harmed the environment, particularly water, because management programs for chicken waste have not kept pace with output.”
The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know. Though U.S. chicken production is the devil we do know, it shouldn’t be a beacon of hope either. Chicken newly sourced from China as well as an already problematic industrial chicken complex are all the more reasons to buy organic and even better, buy from small, local producers whenever possible.