Everyone’s favourite Chicken Nuggets could quickly be spending more miles travelling than you realize: in September, the United States Department of Agriculture said it would allow poultry raised and slaughtered in the U.S. to be imported to China for the first time, processed and then shipped back for export to U.S. buyers.
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The move touched a nerve with a public already unsettled by repeated food safety scandals in China — notably, the discovery in 2008 that baby formula manufacturers there had deliberately laced their products with toxic melamine to lower costs, sickening thousands of children and killing at least six.
Nevertheless, food exports from China into the U.S. rose by 7% between 2009 and 2012. Chinese imports constituted two-thirds of all the apple juice sold in the U.S. between 2008 and 2011, one-third of its garlic and almost 80% of its tilapia.
Several analysts are concerned that the processing plants will slide back into substandard condition after completing their USDA inspection. Others worry about the decision, which is widely viewed as part of a tit-for-tat bid to open up the Chinese market to U.S. beef, may crack the door to the possible importation of poultry raised in China. That would require a separate audit process of any slaughter house policies, says Chris Waldrop, head of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America, a consumer-focused organization.
But “it’s likely a next step,” he says.
U.S. companies have not yet expressed public interest in working with producers of Chinese poultry. If they do, Chinese-processed chicken will not be something that you can avoid by reading the packaging. Since the poultry will be slaughtered in the U.S., and then cooked and prepared before returning, there will be no legal requirement for businesses to explicitly reveal any overseas stops.
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