Here’s the Beef with Chicken from China

The Trump USDA favored a powerful lobby over American food safety

Carlos Barria/Reuters
Carlos Barria/Reuters

Strange Cargo

On June 21, 2017, ExporTech, a California-based poultry wholesaler, accomplished something both commonplace and unprecedented. The commonplace was to import to the United States five cartons of cooked chicken. The unprecedented was to do so from Qingdao, China. The United States had never imported chicken from China for human consumption. The ExporTech shipment indicated that that situation was about to change. 

The inspection form issued by the Chinese government described the shipment’s contents as “Cooked Battered Darkmeat Chicken Chunks.” Another line on the official form further specified the meat as “poultry/Patties-Nuggets.” The exporting company—Qingdao Nine-Alliance Group Co., Ltd.—certified that the enclosed poultry product was “sound, healthful, wholesome, clean and otherwise fit for human food.” It added that the contents “are not adulterated” and that the chicken was “cooked throughout to reach a minimum internal temperature of 74 degrees C (165 degrees F).” These imported nuggets, in other words, were ready to be heated and eaten. 

Who ate them is impossible to say. ExporTech, a private company with five employees and an office located in a two-bedroom residence in Pasadena, is under no legal obligation to report where, when, or to whom it sold these 110 pounds of imported chicken. Furthermore, because the chicken arrived in cooked form, it was not subject to Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) laws. During my research for this article, the company’s website was down, its informational email address bounced my query back, and when I called the listed phone number to ask questions about that single shipment of imported chicken—starting, for example, with “why?”—a woman told me the owner was not there and immediately hung up. 

ExporTech’s June shipment was made possible by a May 2017 Trump administration trade deal with China. According to the agreement, the United States could again export beef to China—banned since 2003 because of an outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease—in exchange for allowing the Chinese to export cooked chicken to the United States. For the beef industry, this exchange was a long-awaited boon. “REAL news!” President Trump tweeted, celebrating the deal.

As matters stand in November 2017, two important restrictions are in place. One, the Chinese can export only cooked chicken. Two, the cooked chicken cannot originate in China but must come from Chile, Canada, or oddly enough, the United States. (The ExporTech chicken came from Chile.) As to why the chicken now has to cross the Pacific twice before arriving in Pasadena, Brian Ronholm, former deputy undersecretary of food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, told me that it’s surely a temporary measure. “No one,” he said, “really believes anyone would use that system.” Instead, he explained, the one instance of importation by ExporTech represented “the U.S. government’s demonstration of good faith” as it prepares to permit what the Chinese are ultimately seeking in exchange for U.S. beef: the freedom to export to the United States chicken raised, slaughtered, and processed in China.

Five days before ExporTech imported chicken nuggets from Qingdao, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) entered the following note in the Federal Register: “FSIS is proposing to amend the poultry products inspection regulations to list the PRC [People’s Republic of China] as eligible to export to the United States poultry products from birds slaughtered in the PRC.” Those last six words represent a critical distinction. With considerable corporate support backing the move, including President Trump’s close ties to the beef lobby, FSIS’s proposed budget increase in an era of dramatic federal downsizing, and the U.S. chicken industry’s hopes of leveraging this agreement to export chicken feet (called “paws”) to China—Chinese-sourced chicken will almost certainly enter the food supply of the United States soon. Jim Sumner, president of the USA Poultry and Egg Export Council, told me to expect to see that happening sometime in 2018.

The United States, the world’s largest chicken producer, hardly needs this chicken. But as UC–Davis professor of veterinary medicine Maurice Pitesky told me, “If it’s cheaper, we’ll take it.” Likewise, Sumner said that if the Chinese manage to get costs down to compete with U.S. chicken, they should be allowed to play ball in the United States, just as they already do with their chicken in Japan, Hong Kong, and Europe. Ronholm estimates that Chinese chicken will never amount to more than two to three percent of the U.S. chicken supply. Even the National Chicken Council has celebrated the Trump deal, noting that “the low volume of trade is likely to have little effect on supply, demand, and prices.” The beef lobbyists, for their part, will remain over the moon no matter how much Chinese chicken comes our way. To them, it’s the price of admission.

“The Consumer Has No Idea”

Consumer advocates believe that Americans will pay that price with their health. Every person to whom I mentioned Chinese chicken imports reacted with some variation of “eeew, yuck.” The response is appropriate. By any standard, China’s food safety history has been dismal. According to Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), “Food safety violations are an ongoing problem in China,” with 500,000 such violations filed in the first nine months of 2016 alone. She highlights a recent study showing that “87 percent of chicken sold in Chinese supermarkets contained drug-resistant bacteria.” Reviewing China’s “demonstrably poor food safety record,” she concludes that the U.S. decision to accept chicken from China “is a slap in the face to American consumers.” And not a surprising slap, given that, as she writes, “trade always trumps public health in the U.S.”

DeLauro’s remarks reflect the concerns of leading consumer interest groups. Patricia Buck, executive director of the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention, opposes the import of Chinese chicken “because of [China’s] questionable food safety record.” She provides a list of safety violations that would set anyone’s hair on fire: “melamine in baby formula, toxins in pet treats, adulteration of rat meat to sell as lamb, smuggling of decades old frozen meat, use of recycled and/or discarded cooking oil at restaurants, tainted meat being sold at fast food chains …” Her characterization could have come straight out of Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Jungle, in which food adulteration plagued the meatpacking industry at every turn. In an interview, Buck further cites the COOL rule that Chinese chicken is not required to be labeled as coming from China when it arrives in cooked form. “The consumer has no idea,” she said, “if the chicken in their soup came from China.” If the incoming chicken turns out to be unsafe, that is clearly a problem. 

Other American consumer advocates echo and elaborate these worries. Cooking chicken might significantly minimize concerns over avian flu virus, but the extent of that virus in China and the widespread health consequences that have followed routine outbreaks concern UC–Davis’s Pitesky nonetheless. He wonders how China’s food safety regime can allow outbreaks to happen with such regularity, noting that since 2013, China has had 370 deaths among 1,557 confirmed human cases of the avian flu. Food and Water Watch senior lobbyist Tony Corbo explained to me that USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has ruled that Chinese chicken coming to the United States “had to be cooked, since China did not have a very good track record of reporting animal disease outbreaks.” But this measure hardly reassures Corbo. “Who is to say that sick birds will not be processed into chicken nuggets?” he asks. “I surely don’t want to eat meat from a diseased animal.” Plus, Corbo adds, “you can’t cook out animal drug residues in the meat.” China has a long history of meat products that contain such residue. In 2011, officials recalled four million pounds of domestic pork because it was contaminated with a stimulant called clenbuterol, which is illegal in farmed animals (but legal, and commonly used, in racehorses). Last year, the government of Hong Kong found that more than 300 pigs imported from elsewhere in China (and slaughtered in Hong Kong) were contaminated with several veterinary drugs, including, again, clenbuterol. 

The Consumer Federation of America has been especially vocal in its opposition to the trade deal. In an August 15, 2017, letter to Secretary of Agriculture George “Sonny” Perdue, it notes that “China continues to experience high-profile food safety problems, and the country’s food safety system is in a state of flux.” It cites “China’s ongoing saga of food safety scandals,” “deep-seated problems that will only resolve slowly,” “food safety catastrophes,” and the familiar cases of “melamine poisoned babies” and contaminated pet foods that “have been associated with the deaths of more than 1,140 dogs in the United States.” The implication hits close to home: if our pets aren’t safe from Chinese meat imports, how safe do we think we’ll be?

“You Can Rest Assured”

Corporate interests and free trade advocates seem less troubled by these concerns. They offer two general perspectives, one ideological and the other humanitarian, in favor of this historic global meat swap. The ideological perspective builds on the premise that, as Andrea Durkin, senior fellow in global food and agriculture at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, explains, “trade rules are not there to intervene in the market and they are not in place to determine whose products are better.” If Chinese poultry “meets U.S. safety standards,” she says, “there is no basis to preclude it.” Durkin believes “every government has the right to regulate for public health.” But she is also quick to note that China “has a history of systemic concerns.” Her deeper problem with opposition to the deal is that a lot of consumers “just don’t like the idea of Chinese poultry—which is a personal preference,” and one that should not factor into trade policy. Free trade, she and the meat industry in general believe, should outweigh such bias. Of course, consumers might not agree. Whatever their ideological commitment to free trade, it will be countered by the desire—and maybe even the right—to know how their food is sourced. The idea of giving up informed choice is not necessarily any more palatable than cooked battered darkmeat chicken chunks from the other side of the world.

Nonetheless, even the National Chicken Council president, Mike Brown, says that “NCC and our members support fair and free trade. In order to be effective, trade must be an open and two-way street.” He advocates a global marketplace that is “free of protectionism and artificial trade barriers.” Central to Brown’s emphasis on free trade is his belief that the United States “is the most efficient producer of poultry products in the world.” If anyone wins, it’ll be the USA. At its peak in 2008, the U.S. chicken industry was exporting $722 million a year in poultry to China. When in 2015 China banned U.S. chicken because of avian flu concerns, it was a blow that the industry—given “our comparative advantage in producing and marketing these products,” Brown says—is in a position to rectify. And don’t forget those paws: braised chicken feet are a dim sum staple. 

Durkin further identifies an important aspect of consumer behavior that consumer activists often overlook. “To be totally candid,” she says, “the challenge with food is that because it is commoditized, you don’t always know [what happened before it reached your plate]—and that’s where a lot of consumer concern comes in—but that’s also a larger question about your confidence in the larger food system.” Her point is that unless you grow your own food or buy it all from a local farmer, you must rely on a large and impersonal market to provide it. Doing so necessarily requires trust because, inevitably, outsourcing food production means assuming some risks. But of course this is where confidence in governmental food safety regulation and oversight comes in. As for her own level of confidence in the U.S. regulatory apparatus, Durkin is bullish. She notes that hammering out the safety regulations surrounding this deal “went on for over a decade” and involved an unusually large investment of federal resources. The commitment represented by this background work makes her “highly skeptical of a viewpoint that suggests that the U.S. would let in unsafe product.” Jim Sumner, of the poultry and egg council, agrees, telling me that he expects FSIS to be rigid in enforcing safety standards on Chinese chicken imports. “We have trust in FSIS,” he said, “and you can rest assured they are going to highly scrutinize [China’s] product.” 

Mike Robach, vice president and corporate head of food safety and regulatory affairs at Cargill, a Minnesota-based global food company, offers a related, and more humanitarian-minded, argument. Cargill oversees 1,500 food-producing plants in 70 countries, and he asserts that for those operations to be viable, Cargill must be obsessed with turning out “high-quality safe products every time everywhere.” If this sounds suspiciously like corporate speak, it is. But that’s not necessarily grounds for dismissal. Robach notes that “regardless of where we are in the world,” Cargill’s approach to food safety is the same. “I’ve got 50 facilities in China,” he says, “and we operate these facilities the same way we do in Western Europe and North America.” One of those plants produces chicken. Robach calls it a “state-of-the-art facility,” and he sees it as a prototype for other producers in China to follow. The possibility that this could happen, thereby improving China’s culture of food safety, brings us to a rarely recognized byproduct of importing a small amount of cooked Chinese chicken to the United States: it represents a profound moral opportunity.

The Moral Dilemma Posed by Chinese Chicken

Since World War II, the United States has, if only implicitly at times, accepted the imperative that our domestic prosperity comes with global responsibilities. From the Green Revolution to fighting AIDS in Africa, the United States has fulfilled a role concomitant with an interconnected and interdependent community of global citizens. Although action often falls short of rhetoric, enlightened trade policies have lent real meaning to these connections, enhancing the prosperity of Europe, Japan, and later the rest of the world. The quest to share prosperity is, for this reason, an altogether apt framework for considering the importation of Chinese chicken, an act that can be understood as one of goodwill achieved through trade. There is, therefore, something larger at stake in this chicken-for-beef deal than spreadsheet interests: the potential for improved global food safety.

Mike Robach and Andrea Durkin are right to suggest that requiring China to adhere to a well-regulated food safety system as a precondition for importation could benefit Chinese consumers, who deserve what even the least well-off Americans can generally take for granted: not dying from eating their country’s food. Chinese consumers—
71 percent of whom do not trust China’s food safety measures and are vulnerable to their country’s corruption—would be better off if the Chinese government, by being forced to adhere to stringent export standards, began to use those standards as a model for making chicken (and all meat, for that matter) safer at home.

The possibility of this outcome is why effective food safety regulations are critical in an enlightened global sense as well as from a more narrow national perspective. But this moral proposition ultimately depends on honest and transparent oversight of China’s food safety system by the U.S. government. If American consumers cannot count on USDA—and specifically FSIS—to effectively minimize food safety risks for Americans, then any consideration of a moral benefit becomes moot. It would be entirely unacceptable to ask American consumers to incorporate even the scantest supply of Chinese chicken into the U.S. market if the safety regulations were not as stringent and carefully enforced as they are for chicken produced in the United States. But if the United States could ensure that Chinese chicken was as safe as U.S. chicken, a moral impetus would exist to improve global food safety through the power of domestic consumer choice. This ethical proposition boils down to a single regulatory concept known as “equivalence.” 

Equivalence in Theory

Countries hoping to export to the United States meat, poultry, egg products, and catfish “must demonstrate that they have a regulatory food safety inspection system that is equivalent to that of the United States.” FSIS calls equivalence “the process of determining whether a country’s food safety inspection system achieves the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s appropriate level of public health protection as applied domestically in the United States.” Note that equivalence does not require the replication of the U.S. system. FSIS explains that the exporting country only “must objectively demonstrate how its procedures meet the U.S. level of protection.” Consider it a separate but equal designation for food safety programs, one that has worked admirably well in most of the world. The United States currently has granted equivalence status to 34 countries, including China.

Equivalence is unique to FSIS’s regulatory approach to meat, poultry, and eggs sourced from other countries. What makes it different, as Tony Corbo put it to me, is that “the determination of the equivalency process requires rulemaking.” In other words: there are legal strictures to follow. All other food imports are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration through a variety of techniques—for example, onsite and point-of-entry inspections, electronic screening and spot checks, and testing for heavy metals in foods—but none of these procedures follow a set of legal stipulations accountable to what’s required to achieve and maintain equivalance.

This distinction is itself cause for concern. The United States became a net food importer in 2005 (a first since USDA started keeping such a statistic in 1967), and its food imports have risen 35 percent since 2012. Because of this, the auditing and oversight of the equivalence designation, if only because it is bound by rules, is comparatively strict. Corbo reiterates this point by observing that only 34 countries import meat, poultry, or catfish to the United States, whereas 160 import other foods. China is an important player on this side of the equation as well. According to 2014 statistics reported by the Alliance for American Manufacturing, the United States imports 78 percent of its tilapia, 70 percent of its apple juice, 43 percent of its processed mushrooms, and 23 percent of its garlic from China. FDA admits that it “inspects or samples less than one percent of all regulated products seeking entry into the United States.”

Selena Kremer, of the FSIS Office of Public Affairs and Consumer Education, further assures me of equivalence’s unique regulatory powers. She explained in an email that “FSIS ensures that [exporters] maintain equivalence with a three-pronged approach.” These prongs are “conducting annual document reviews of eligible foreign countries’ food safety systems through the Self Reporting Tool; conducting on-site regulatory system audits at least once every three years; [and] conducting point-of-entry-re-inspections of all products offered for import into the United States.” As for this last measure, “These re-inspections provide evidence of how the foreign country’s inspection system is performing and include visual inspection, along with microbial and chemical laboratory analysis.”

A chart provided to me by Kremer’s office suggested the benefits of having rules. It showed that the FSIS audits were, between 2012 and 2015, conducted more often than the required three-year interval for all but 11 of the 34 countries with equivalence status. Given that, in addition to the acknowledgment even among consumer safety groups in the United States that the Chinese government was making serious headway toward improving its food safety program, it was not unrealistic to assume that even if the proper regulatory mechanisms were not yet in place, they would be soon. In other words, American consumers could find themselves in a position of accepting a small amount of safe, cooked chicken from China into our food supply in exchange for the exportation of not just beef but also a system of regulation that would improve global food safety and the quality of life for hundreds of millions of people.

How the Chicken Sausage Gets Made

The concept of equivalence, as it is described by regulatory officials in Washington, is one thing. How equivalence plays out in reality is another. Understanding exactly how Chinese chicken was granted equivalency status requires going back to Christmas Day 2003. On that morning, the U.S. beef industry woke up to a big bag of coal. A laboratory in Weybridge, England, through a trace-back investigation, determined that a single cow infected with mad cow disease had been exported from Canada to the United States in August 2001. In the wake of this discovery, 53 countries cut off beef exports from the United States. The national ban that hurt the most, because it was from an immensely populous country with a growing middle class seeking greater access to beef, was China’s.

Ominously, it was in this context—with the entire U.S. beef industry having just been trampled by a lone cow in Washington State—that USDA, urged on by beef industry lobbyists, began to work with China to reopen the beef trade. The situation was ripe for a quid pro quo negotiation, and China began by requesting that the United States permit chicken imports in exchange for the resumption of beef exports. An audit to determine equivalence for China would take place in December 2004. In the meantime, according to Food and Water Watch’s Tony Corbo, “there were widespread outbreaks of avian influenza in China’s poultry flocks that also infected humans,” outbreaks that were never reported to the World Health Organization. Not an auspicious start on the high road to equivalence. 

The findings of the 2004 audit were also, by any reasonable standard, discouraging. FSIS—when its auditors based in China tested for E. coli and Salmonella and analyzed handling and sanitation—uncovered what Corbo calls “major food-safety deficiencies” in both processing and slaughter facilities. Sanitation problems were rampant, including, according to FSIS’s own summary of the audit, “grease, blood, fat, pieces of dry meat and foreign particles … observed on product contact areas,” “over product dripping condensation … in several areas,” a conveyer belt with “deep cuts” in it, “a rusty pipe with flaking paint … over the exposed chiller,” “product contact areas … continuously wiped off by a dirty cloth,” and contact surfaces “with heavy grease in the raw meat area.” Onsite testing for E. coli and Salmonella was incomplete or nonexistent in the four processing facilities examined.

Despite such basic sanitation failures (and many other oversights), this audit became the basis on which FSIS would propose to deem China’s poultry processing system to be equivalent. Reflecting on that proposal, the Consumer Federation of America’s Thomas Gremillion expressed disbelief. He noted that “FSIS somehow concluded” that the Chinese facilities were equivalent, “even though on-site audits later revealed that the Chinese system relied on company employees, rather than government inspectors, to screen animals for disease.” 

A 2005 FSIS audit of four slaughter facilities in China revealed that sanitation and regulation problems persisted. According to the report, “In one establishment, outside rodent control traps are regularly removed from their sites during the day’s operation and moved back to their position after the end of the shift,” a move that “might allow rodents to enter the establishment.” In another slaughter facility, “dripping condensation”—identified as a major problem in the 2004 audit—“in the over-product contact area (cut-up tables) and in the hallways in front of the cold stores was observed.” The auditors never visited microbiological or residue laboratories; animal inspection was performed by “establishment veterinarians” rather than Chinese government veterinarians (as required by FSIS for equivalence); and in China’s written response to this audit, authorities merely “requested the establishments to conduct self-inspection and take corrective actions.” The only cause for optimism in this report was that E. coli and Salmonella testing was happening in every facility. 

As with the first report, the bad news in this second report did not deter FSIS from its seemingly preordained quest to confer equivalence, and indeed only propelled it in that direction. On November 23, 2005, three months after this last audit, FSIS officially proposed a rule to determine that China’s system of poultry processing was equivalent to the U.S. system, and asked for comments. This was when APHIS—USDA’s own inspection service—refused to allow in chicken that had originated in China (and designated Canada and the United States as the only legitimate suppliers, later adding Chile). A second response came from 70 individual citizens and concerned consumer groups, almost all of whom opposed the equivalence designation for China. Nonetheless, in April 2006, with the comment period over, China’s president Hu Jintao visited President George W. Bush at the White House. Bush, a Texan with long-established ties to the beef industry, gave Hu a warm welcoming gift: equivalency. 

It is hard not to agree with Thomas Gremillion’s pithy assessment of this brief but troubling history: “China has sought to export poultry to the United States since 2004, and FSIS has sought to accommodate those ambitions … despite evidence that the Chinese meat and poultry inspection system does not measure up to U.S. standards.” It is also hard not to agree with his belief that “FSIS should start over.” Congress, for its part, agreed with him and even intervened to prevent equivalence designation. But China appealed to the World Trade Organization, calling the congressional move “arbitrary or unjustifiable,” and the WTO agreed with China, forcing the United States to comply. Equivalence in 2006 stood, and behind it a dark narrative of not only how the (chicken) sausage gets made, but also how all the healthful stuff is left out. 

The Story Gets Even Darker

A more generous way exists to interpret this history of equivalence assessment in China. It seems quixotic, after all, to think that China could simply fix its massive and dysfunctional system in one fell swoop. If we accept the reasonable assumption that improvement on such a scale happens gradually, in fits and starts, and that equivalence is more an incentive to make those changes as rapidly as possible than a representation of a state fully realized (even though this is not how it is legally understood), then perhaps some of these early mistakes identified by Corbo and Gremillion and FSIS might be seen as growing pains rather than a permanent condition. Perhaps FSIS audits of China’s chicken processing and slaughter facilities—and all the problems that arose therein—were early examples of errors that, in time, would be ameliorated. 

Unfortunately, what happened between 2010 and 2017 to pave the way for Trump’s deal with China tells an even darker story than the history of achieving equivalence in 2006. In 2008, China’s melamine-tainted baby formula scandal led the country to revamp its entire food safety regime. This reorganization required FSIS to reestablish equivalence status. Onsite FSIS audits resumed in 2010. What they found was alarming: China lacked a national inspection system. The responsibility for inspecting meat was decentralized into regional branches. Furthermore, instead of relying on government-appointed inspectors, it used industry representatives to do its monitoring and testing. Appropriately, equivalence was denied. Gremillion, surveying this 2010 report today, writes, “How these obstacles failed to prevent FSIS from making its earlier equivalence determination is mind-boggling.” In any case, China agreed to pursue “corrective actions.” FSIS said it would be back in 2013 to reassess the situation. 

Audits from 2013 claimed that the Chinese had successfully addressed all concerns raised in the 2010 audit. But problems persisted. The report, based on visits to only one provincial inspection office and four processing and slaughter plants, noted infractions such as the following: “one frayed electrical cord near exposed frozen RTE [ready to eat] products,” “several long electrical cords bundled with pieces of wire and repaired with electrical tape that rendered them difficult to clean,” “structural deficiencies that included accumulation of residue on the outer surfaces of a tumbler in the raw product area,” “one overhead electrical outlet with exposed wires,” and “an air-line water trap [that] was not adequately closed and sealed causing its contents to spray in the surrounding area.” As for the one slaughter plant audit, Tony Corbo observed that “there were still concerns expressed that the postmortem inspection was not adequately being performed.” Nonetheless, when it came to sanitation, FSIS auditors “concluded that there were no concerns” and, yet again, recommended equivalence. Oddly enough, despite the equivalency designation and historically low shipping costs, the Chinese did not get around to certifying these plants for export until October 2014, a lag that suggests there was much more work to be done than the FSIS report let on. Two more audits in 2015 and one in 2016 continued to highlight problems with China’s safety protocols—most notably “line speeds” for slaughtering birds that far exceeded FSIS limits for the United States. In the end, only two of the country’s 35 provincial offices were audited. These problems brought into question the entire notion of equivalence for China, and are perhaps why the Obama administration dragged its feet when it came to approving the recommendation of equivalence. 

The beef industry, which had been watching this process sputter along for almost 15 years, hoped President Trump would be the guy to finally deliver China. And, with mechanistic efficiency, he did. On April 7, 2017, he met with China’s president, Xi Jinping. On May 11, the secretaries of Commerce and Treasury released a statement saying, “The United States and China are to resolve outstanding issues for the import of China origin cooked poultry to the United States as soon as possible.” That same day, the Trump administration’s USDA did something very telling with its U.S. Codex representatives—those people working with Codex Alimentarius, the international food safety standard-setter, to enhance food safety regulations. It moved them from working under FSIS to a newly created USDA position called the under secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs. “This is a clear message,” wrote Patricia Buck, of the Center for Foodborne Illness, in an email, “that trade is more important than food safety.” On June 12, USDA announced the protocol to resume exporting beef to China. On June 16, it proposed to grant equivalence status to China’s slaughter-inspection system, paving the way for what China has wanted all along in exchange for U.S. beef: the exportation to the United States of its own chicken. On June 21, that lone shipment of cooked nuggets came to ExporTech. More is coming. And you’ll never know it.

If the sloppy regulatory history behind this decision is not convincing proof that the chicken the Chinese will send to the United States cannot be fully trusted as having been through an equivalent regulatory process, then a report released by USDA’s Office of Inspector General should. On September 27, 2017, OIG delivered a scathing evaluation of FSIS’s approach to determining equivalence. Among its findings, the report noted that “policies and procedures did not contain sufficient guidance for conducting ongoing equivalence verification audits”; that “FSIS officials had not consistently performed, completed, or documented audit procedures”; and that “FSIS did not have adequate policy to monitor, classify, evaluate, or determine equivalence of individual sanitary measures.” It went on. When I asked Michelle Catlin, a FSIS official, to respond to these findings, she wrote, “The OIG report concluded that FSIS has a robust inspection system in place that poses no risk to public health, yet we welcome any recommendations that help us continue to keep food safe for American families.” Somehow, this response managed to reflect the level of sincerity that characterized more than a decade’s worth of regulatory inadequacy.

Unanswered Questions

As I finished my research, I decided to try again to speak to a person at ExporTech. Only this time I did so with a more thorough understanding of the 14-year history behind its June 21, 2017, importation, a history of regulatory indifference that dashed any inclination to interpret this small shipment of cooked chicken in optimistic terms. The failure of FSIS to enforce a plausible notion of equivalence is a moral failure. It removes the chance for Americans to benefit global consumers—especially Chinese consumers—by enhancing their access to safer food. A guarantee of equivalent food safety measures would have made it possible for Americans to accept a token amount of cooked chicken from birds raised and slaughtered in China in the knowledge that it was safe and that the Chinese might change their culture of food safety. It would have allowed us to embrace the moral implications of trade. Only regulation can make this happen.

Instead, because regulatory mechanisms failed, consumers in the United States and China must live with a trade deal that will lead to a less safe food supply and a wasted opportunity to capitalize on consumer choice to improve the lives of people in other countries. In an era when the moral authority of the United States has never been more squandered, when our supposed exceptionalism has never been so depleted, to lose that power, one of the few we have left, leaves one feeling a special kind of sickness. As for my phone call and the questions I had hoped to ask, they went unanswered.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

James McWilliams is an historian at Texas State University. He's currently at work on a book on the art and literature of the American South. He lives in Austin, Texas.


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