September 4, 2013 3:05PM

The Future of U.S.-China Economic Relations: Lots of Food Fights

Just as a U.S. government agency is about to decide whether a Chinese company can buy a U.S. pork producer, concerns are being raised about foods shipped directly from China. Here is Bloomberg View columnist Adam Minter:

… the U.S. Department of Agriculture … announce[d] that it had ended a ban on Chinese chicken imports by approving four Chinese poultry processors to ship processed (“heat‐​treated/​cooked”) chicken to the U.S. The report on the approved poultry plants noted that the audit set out to “to determine whether the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) food safety system governing poultry processing remains equivalent to that of the United States (U.S.), with the ability to produce products that are safe, wholesome, unadulterated, and properly labeled.” Needless to say, the Chinese plants passed.

Initially, at least, the chickens will be slaughtered in the U.S. (or another nation that’s allowed to export slaughtered chicken to the U.S.), then shipped to China for processing and re‐​export. That’s the good news. The bad news is that, according to the New York Times, no USDA inspectors will be present in the Chinese processing plants (despite the fact that China has never before been allowed to export chicken to the U.S.), thus offering consumers no guarantees where the processed chickens were in fact slaughtered. Even worse, because the birds will be processed, the USDA will not require point‐​of‐​origin labeling (under USDA rules, foods that have been cooked aren’t subject to point‐​of‐​origin labeling). In other words: Consumers will have no way to tell if those chicken nuggets in the supermarket freezer were processed in the U.S. or in China.

Minter’s concerns seem rooted in an old Barenaked Ladies song (“Chickity China the Chinese chicken/​Have a drumstick and your brain stops tickin‘”), but is there any reason to be worried here? Here are some thoughts:

– The Chinese factories were visited by USDA inspectors, who deemed them safe;

– The products at issue are cooked, and then frozen, which should help deal with any bacteria;

– Companies who sell these products are presumably still liable for any harm caused.

If that’s not enough, let me just note that if consumers are worried about eating frozen chicken nuggets processed in China, those companies who process their chicken nuggets elsewhere could indicate this on their package label, picking up new consumers who are hoping to avoid the dreaded Chinese chicken.