Questionable farming practices fuel skepticism of US plan to import poultry
In China, some farmers try to maximize the output from their small plots by flooding produce with unapproved pesticides, pumping livestock with antibiotics banned in the United States, and using human feces as fertilizer to boost soil productivity. But the questionable practices don't end there: Chicken pens are frequently suspended over ponds where seafood is raised, recycling chicken waste as a food source for seafood, according to a leading food safety expert who served as a federal adviser to the Food and Drug Administration.
China's suspect agricultural practices could soon affect American consumers. Federal authorities are working on a proposal to allow chickens raised, slaughtered, and cooked in China to be sold here, and under current regulations, store labels do not have to indicate the meat's origin.
According to the US Department of Agriculture , China's top agricultural export goal is opening the US market to its cooked chickens. Representative Rosa DeLauro , who is fighting the change, says China does not deserve entry to the coveted, closed poultry market.
Agricultural exports from China to the United States ballooned from $1 billion in 2002 to nearly $2.3 billion in 2006 , according to the US Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service . DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut and chairwoman of a US House agricultural subcommittee , said Congress should signal its willingness to restrict imports from China until it improves food safety oversight.
"There is deception. There is lax regulation, and they've got unsanitary conditions," DeLauro said. "They need to hear from us they're at risk. Congress has to look at limiting some of their agricultural imports."
The USDA, which shares food safety oversight with the FDA, says its proposal to allow the sale of Chinese chicken is in the early stages and that there will be many opportunities for the public to be heard on the matter. Under the plan, any country seeking to export meat , poultry, or egg products to the United States must earn "equivalency," with documentation that its product is as safe and wholesome as the domestic competition. USDA officials would review records, conduct on-site audits, and confirm that foreign laboratories could ensure the food's safety, said Steven Cohen , a spokesman for the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service . The agency would also inspect imported products as they enter the nation, he said.
"This is a process that has barely begun, and there is a very lengthy review," Cohen said.
According to Lucius Adkins , president of United Poultry Growers Association , the idea "should be strangled in infancy." The group represents more than 700 producers in Georgia , one of the nation's leading poultry producing states.
"You don't know what conditions existed in that plant [in China]. You didn't have a government representative there watching [poultry] being slaughtered and processed. It's going to come here packaged," Adkins said. "They're already killing our pets. Do we want to eat their food?"
The National Chicken Council , which represents companies that produce 95 percent of US-grown poultry, has not taken a position on the USDA's proposal.
Each American will eat an estimated 85 pounds of broiler chickens this year, down from 88 pounds last year -- the first per-capita decrease since 1973 . Currently, the US imports almost no poultry, except for a small amount of chicken exported by Canadian producers, said Richard Lobb, a spokesman for the trade association.
But Americans do eat food from around the world, Lobb said. "People don't have any problem with potpie from Canada. How they would feel about frozen chicken from China or specialty Chinese products that are canned or dried or something, I don't know."
In China's agricultural system, many farmers toil on 1-acre plots, while US farmers often work thousands of acres, said Michael Doyle , director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia and former chairman of the FDA's science advisory board.
In China, "there are hundreds of thousands of these little farms," Doyle said. "They have small ponds. And over the ponds -- in not all cases, but in many cases -- they'll have chicken cages. It might be like 20,000 chickens in cages. The chicken feces is what feeds the shrimp."
The USDA has found that up to 10 percent of shrimp imported from China contains salmonella, he said. Even more worrisome are shrimp imported from China that contain antibiotics that no amount of cooking can neutralize. Last month alone, the FDA rejected 51 shipments of catfish , eel , shrimp, and tilapia imported from China because of such contaminants as salmonella , veterinary drugs, and nitrofuran , a cancer-causing chemical. A long history of such test results spurred the FDA to begin working proactively with Chinese farmers on safer seafood production methods, Doyle said.
"In terms of harmful bacteria, consumers have control over that. Even in [poultry] we produce in the US, there is contamination with salmonella," Doyle said. "In terms of veterinary drugs and pesticides, well, good food handling practices won't fix that. That has to be addressed in the country of origin."
Joan Zahka , a Lexington woman, said she wouldn't buy Chinese poultry, based on what she has seen firsthand. Zahka grows her own greens and herbs, and when her children were young she ground organic baby food before it was sold in stores. She shops at Whole Foods for fresh produce and scrutinizes country of origin labels the grocery store chain voluntarily posts.
"There is no way I'm going to knowingly buy chicken from China," Zahka said. "There are all kinds of red flags for me. I've traveled through China. I know we have a much greater value on life here."