Playing Chicken

President Trump’s campaign promises to drain the swamp and get tough on China might well meet in the breach sometime next year on your dinner plate. That is when China will likely for the first time begin exporting to the United States chickens grown, slaughtered, and processed in the People’s Republic. You might well decide that, given the abysmal record of food safety in that faraway land, you would just as soon eat a homegrown bird. It is probable that homegrown you will get, but depending on where you shop and eat, you might not have a choice. Given the routine mislabeling of fish in grocery stores, it’s hard to be sanguine about the prospect of your local market’s coming clean about Chinese chicken. If you eat at a fast-food restaurant, or even a slow-food one, forget it. Today, it is legal (if impractical) to import into the United States products from chickens that were raised elsewhere but packaged in China—the law does not require the origin of cooked chicken to be revealed. So you might already be eating Chinese chicken nuggets.

If this smacks of rank xenophobia, consider that members of what some people call the swamp—that is, those in the federal bureaucracy who enforce the laws and regulations designed to protect us—have proved again and again in the past 15 years that China has no intention of cleaning up its poultry industry, which, when not fostering outbreaks of disease, is pumping its birds full of antibiotics and hormones illegal in the United States. If you have the stomach for it, and of course we hope you will, read our cover story about the conditions under which Chinese poultry is slaughtered and packaged. Despite the Department of Agriculture’s repeated exposure of these outrages, the Trump administration, soon after taking office, declared against all evidence that China’s poultry safety standards are equivalent to our own. Why would they do that? If your definition of the swamp is the undue influence of industry lobbyists in Washington, you might not be surprised to hear we will be eating Chinese chicken because the U.S. beef lobby wanted to export its products to China, and the quid pro quo was our importing demonstrably  dirty birds. Take that, China!

USDA’s inspector general—we have not yet drained the swamp of  such crucial federal watchdogs—rightly blasted this political decision, but since white is the new black, USDA flacks interpreted the IG report as a blessing. What, then, is a consumer to do? You might consider giving up chicken (and you might just eliminate beef as well). You and the environment will be healthier. The law requires only that China’s standards meet our own, but after all, what other U.S. food product do we bring into our kitchens with the understanding that we must handle it with care or be sickened by it?


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Robert Wilson's most recent book is Barnum: An American Life. He was the editor of the Scholar for more than 17 years.


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