This editorial was originally published Sept. 25 on The Lunch Tray. On August 30, the USDA announced that it will allow four Chinese facilities to process poultry raised and slaughtered in the United States, Chile or Canada, and then export the cooked poultry products back into the United States. The USDA’s move is widely seen as a preliminary step toward eventually allowing China to export its own raw poultry into this country, in exchange for China’s opening up its lucrative beef market to American beef producers. Given China’s troubling food safety record and the fact that its own government official essentially admitted that China can’t live up to the food safety standards of more developed nations, there are those who speculate that the timing of the USDA announcement – the Friday before Labor Day weekend — was not unintentional. But whether or not the agency was trying to bury this news, the announcement quickly led to an outcry among journalists, environmental watchdog groups and Congressional representatives, including New York Senator Charles Schumer (D), Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown (D) and Connecticut Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D). In the days following the announcement, a few readers asked me if the new USDA policy means that Chinese-processed chicken will appear on American school lunch trays. On the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) website, I found this helpful Q & A:
Will chicken processed in China be included in school lunches? No. The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service ensures that products included in [sic] school lunch program are produced, raised, and processed only in the United States, its territories or possessions, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, or the Trust Territories of the Pacific Islands.
To parents with little knowledge of how school food programs operate (i.e., the vast majority), this statement from FSIS would seem to settle the question — and provide solid reassurance for those concerned about Chinese-processed chicken being fed to their kids at school. But the FSIS statement is in fact quite misleading. It is true that school districts participating in the National School Lunch Program (the “NSLP,” which also includes school breakfast and after-school snack programs) receive agricultural commodities from the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, and it is true that these products are domestic. But the USDA is well aware that school districts also procure significant portions of their school food from private vendors, and this method of school food sourcing is entirely omitted from the answer above — despite the blanket “no” response. So the pertinent question is: Can private vendors sell Chinese-processed chicken to schools? I emailed the FSIS and a USDA spokesperson agreed that “schools also make their own purchases” of school food, but she went on to note that such purchases are governed by a “Buy American” regulation which
requires participating schools to purchase domestically grown and processed foods, to the maximum extent practicable. A domestic . . . product is defined to be “. . . a food product that is processed in the United States substantially using agricultural commodities that are produced in the United States.”
This regulation sounds like a de facto ban on Chinese-processed chicken. But at the end of her email, the spokesperson also disclosed that under the “Buy American” rule:
[p]roducts that are processed in the United States and comprised of at least 51 percent domestic ingredients are considered domestic.
I have since expressly confirmed with the USDA that this definition of “domestic” would indeed allow Chinese-processed chicken into the school lunch program. Here’s how: if, for example, a manufacturer of frozen chicken egg rolls fully assembles the egg rolls in this country, but sources the cooked chicken in the egg rolls from a Chinese processor, the egg rolls are considered “domestic” so long as the Chinese-processed chicken doesn’t comprise more than 49% of the total product. School districts could buy these egg rolls without violating the “Buy American” rule and the egg rolls would not have to bear any country-of-origin labeling to disclose the location of the poultry processing. And this scenario could easily apply to any chicken-based entree supplied to schools, such as chicken soup, frozen chicken burritos, chicken chili, chicken-stuffed ravioli, and more. I also learned that there’s a second exception to the “Buy American” rule. In the unlikely event that the economics of chicken processing shift, such that it becomes reliably cheaper for schools to source items like patties and nuggets using Chinese-processed chicken over domestically processed chicken, then schools can freely buy such products, regardless of ingredient percentages. So the bottom line is this: despite the blanket reassurance to the contrary on FSIS’s website, it is entirely possible that Chinese-processed chicken will be used in school meals. It’s also worth noting that, according to the USDA spokesperson, there is no analogous “Buy American” restriction on schools providing evening meals to students, nor does it apply to meals served in day care centers, as both of these programs are part of the Child and Adult Care Food Program rather than the NSLP. (“School supper” programs are increasingly common; by 2015, an estimated 21 million students will be eating dinner at school.) Accordingly, it appears that any Chinese-processed chicken product, regardless of ingredient percentages, can be used in these meals as well. Whether Chinese-processed chicken presents a serious concern for parents is open for debate. According to sources interviewed by Politico, few U.S. poultry producers have expressed interest in processing chicken in China at the present time due to logistical constraints. If that situation changes, however, parents are unlikely to know about it. Moreover, because no country-of-origin labeling is required on products containing Chinese-processed chicken, only school districts which expressly obligate vendors to use 100% domestically processed chicken will know exactly what they’re serving to kids. In my opinion, though, parents ought to be far more worried about the possible lifting of the export ban on Chinese-raised and -slaughtered raw poultry. If raw Chinese poultry enters this country and becomes reliably cheaper than domestic poultry, its use in school food could become widespread under the second exception to the “Buy American” rule noted above. (And, at any rate, raw Chinese poultry could always be used, up to 49%, in manufactured food items regardless of cost.) Given that some Chinese poultry farmers allegedly used large quantities of illegal drugs in raising chickens sold to KFC, and given the potential vulnerability of young school children eating such chicken, a lifting of the export ban on raw Chinese poultry is a cause for serious concern. In the meantime, is FSIS intentionally misleading the public on this issue? I can’t know, of course, but I suspect that in the rush to quell concerns about the August 30th announcement, the FSIS simply failed to vet its school food Q & A with the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, the branch of the agency overseeing child nutrition programs. Regardless of motive, however, my own questioning of the agency (which began a full two weeks ago) has clearly brought the inaccuracy to its attention — yet, as of this writing, the original statement remains on its website.