By STEPHANIE STROM New York Times
The Department of Agriculture on Friday approved four Chinese poultry processors to begin shipping a limited amount of meat to the United States, a move that is likely to add to the debate over food imports.
Initially, the companies will be allowed to export only cooked poultry products from birds raised in the United States and Canada. But critics predicted that the government would eventually expand the rules, so that chickens and turkeys bred in China could end up in the American market.
“This is the first step towards allowing China to export its own domestic chickens to the U.S.,” said Tony Corbo, the senior lobbyist for Food and Water Watch, an advocacy group that works to promote food safety.
The U.S.D.A.’s decision follows years of wrangling over the issue, and comes as Americans are increasingly focused on the origin of their food.
In recent years, imports have been the source of contamination, prompting broader worries about food safety. The Food and Drug Administration just released an analysis of imported spices, showing high levels of salmonella in coriander, oregano, sesame seeds and curry powder.
China does not have the best track record for food safety, and its chicken products in particular have raised questions. The country has had frequent outbreaks of deadly avian influenza, which it sometimes has been slow to report.
Recently, an F.D.A. investigation tied the deaths of more than 500 dogs and a handful of cats to chicken jerky treats that came from China. The treats, which were eventually recalled, additionally were blamed for sickening more than 2,500 animals.
The proposed sale of Smithfield Foods to Shuanghui International, a major Chinese food processor, has added to the industry scrutiny. In July, senators from both parties questioned Larry Pope, the chief executive of Smithfield, about the implications of his company’s deal for food safety and United States employment.
Mr. Pope responded that the deal was intended to address the rising demand for meat in China and that American workers would be employed in that effort. “This means increased capacity for U.S. producers, more jobs in processing and more exports for the U.S. economy,” Mr. Pope said. “At the same time, we will continue to supply our same high-quality, renowned products to U.S. consumers.”
The poultry trade between the United States and China has been contentious for years. Under the Bush administration, the U.S.D.A. moved to allow imports of chicken from China, which has banned imports of American beef since 2003 over worries about mad cow disease.
In response, Congress blocked Chinese chicken exports. China retaliated by slapping huge tariffs on American chicken. The fight ended up at the World Trade Organization, which ruled that the tariffs were too high.
After that, the U.S.D.A. then audited Chinese processing plants, giving its approval for them to process raw birds from the United States and Canada.
Under the new rules, the Chinese facilities will verify that cooked products exported to the United States came from American or Canadian birds. So no U.S.D.A. inspector will be present in the plants.
And because the poultry will be processed, it will not require country-of-origin labeling. Nor will consumers eating chicken noodle soup from a can or chicken nuggets in a fast-food restaurant know if the chicken came from Chinese processing plants.
“We certainly don’t look forward to any more imports, but we also realize free trade is a two-way street,” said Tom Super, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, which represents big chicken processors in the United States. “We’re hoping the Chinese will look a little more favorably on our chicken products and on other U.S. agricultural imports.”