U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors are headed to China to inspect Chinese poultry processing facilities to verify Chinese claims that several of its chicken processing and slaughter plants meet U.S. food safety standards – a move that could lead to a reversal of a ban on chicken sales to the U.S.
The incredibly poor timing of this trip follows the YUM! Brands, KFC, McDonald’s juiced Chinese instant chicken scandal, the recall of Nestle-Purina and Del Monte imported Chinese chicken jerky pet treats laced with drugs and finally, the pièce de résistance: the recent stomach-churning report of thousands of sick chickens in China diverted to KFC and McDonald’s fast food chains.
For seasoned food safety advocates like Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist for Food & Water Watch, who is no stranger to the ongoing saga of the U.S./China chicken trade issue, has said the idea that Chinese chicken could possibly ever be considered equivalent to the U.S. is absurd, given repeated findings of unsanitary conditions at Chinese chicken slaughterhouses. Corbo who has seen some of those reports said, “Everyone who has seen them was grossed-out.“
The inspections scheduled in China are the result of seven years of wrangling between the two countries with the intention of repairing the fractured U.S.-China trade relations, possibly paving the way for the U.S. export of beef to China. China has wanted to sell chicken in the U.S. since 2006. But bird flu outbreaks, food safety issues and opposition in Congress have delayed any lifting of the ban.
A Wall Street Journal report explains, “The prohibition on Chinese chicken has long been a thorn in U.S.-China trade relations, according to Iowa State University Professor Dermot Hayes, who said resolving that issue will help to get China to soften its barriers to U.S. agricultural goods, allowing the U.S. to send beef to China, for example.“
“U.S. demands that China buy its beef and Chinese demands that the U.S. buy its chicken have been intertwined for years, according to a former USDA official that was involved in negotiations between the two countries. China consistently refused to make concessions on U.S. beef without USDA action on Chinese chicken.“
Currently, under Department of Agriculture rules, countries cannot export meat and poultry products to the U.S. unless the USDA certifies that the slaughterhouses and processing plants have food-safety systems equivalent to those in this Country. However, reports from USDA government inspectors visiting poultry processing facilities in China found defective equipment, lack of employee hygiene, unsanitary conditions, and an absence of testing programs for Salmonella, E. coli and other contaminants.
Because of these deficiencies, much to the chagrin of China, they are not certified to sell any meat to the U.S. because they have not met the equivalency requirement. Adding to the objection of poultry imported from China is the country’s endemic problem with avian influenza. The most most feared subtype highly pathogenic H5N1 (HPAI H5N1) is currently circulating in poultry in parts of Asia, has mutated to infect humans, has caused human disease and deaths since 1997. Such mutation, public-health authorities fear is poised to trigger a human pandemic.
According to the Centers for Disease Control the trouble with HPAI H5N1 is it’s unpredictability, “HPAI H5N1 viruses circulating among birds have evolved and are continuing to evolve into different subgroups of viruses, called ‘clades.’…because avian influenza viruses have the potential to change and gain the ability to spread easily among people, monitoring for human infection and person-to-person transmission is extremely important for public health.“
Frustrated by the rebuke, crafty Chinese meat exporters eventually figured out they could export all the chicken they wanted to the U.S. via the Food and Drug Administration as pet food. China is currently only approved to export chicken in the form of pet food to the U.S., where the FDA is investigating the link between Chinese jerky treats and reports of dog illnesses and deaths, prompting China to issue a blistering response to the suggestion that their chicken could be killing dogs.
Corbo who first brought national attention to the matter in his brilliant piece China Sneaks its Chicken in on Man’s Best Friend noted that the Chinese “will stop at nothing to force its dubious chicken into the U.S. market to unsuspecting consumers…What an ironic example of how screwed up our food safety system really is.”
Unfortunately, for America’s pets, they paid the ultimate price of U.S. imported cheap Chinese chicken by getting sick and dying. The tainted treats have been associated with acute renal failure, acquired Fanconi-like syndrome, leaving pet parents at risk while U.S. importers were only too happy to cash in on the cheap source of chicken. Claiming the Chinese don’t care for breast meat, U.S. importers suggest that it was their capitalist duty to relieve China of the excess white meat.
After years of research into the cause of the rare illness, scientists are still unable to explain the link between a rare genetic disorder, Fanconi syndrome, so rare it was usually only seen in a fraction of one breed of dog, now diagnosed in hundreds of dogs of all breeds in connection with the imported Chinese poultry treats.
With the recent discovery of multiple illegal drug residues on the imported treats several top brands of pet treats, Nestle-Purina owned Waggin’ Train and Canyon Creek Ranch treats and Del Monte owned Milo’s Kitchen chicken jerky treats prompted a nationwide recall. Although it was a victory for consumers and victims who have been advocating for a withdrawal, the recall does not solve the mystery of the cause of the illnesses.
Veterinarians, FDA and U.S. pet food companies alike have said the finding is unlikely to cause health problems in pets, or explain reason for the reported illness and death associated with the treats.
Some pet food safety advocates, including myself, are suggesting the problem in dogs could be a hypersensitivity (allergy) to sulfonamides. Four of the five drug residues of the chicken treats were sulfa drugs, with a known history of allergy in patients, most particularly in dogs. Further research will have to confirm the hypothesis. Until then, consumers are cautioned by veterinarians and the U.S. FDA to exercise extreme caution with the troublesome treats.
Meanwhile, the USDA appears to be utterly unconcerned with exposing the country to avian influenza which could start a deadly worldwide epidemic, is bowing to high-level political pressure to appease government and industry agenda once more.