New Legislation Seeks to Ban Chinese Poultry and Meat from School Lunches

On April 30, 2015, Senator Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) proposed the Safe Chicken and meat for Children Act (H.R. 2152). The bipartisan bill seeks to ban any meat or chicken produced or processed in China from the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), School Breakfast Program (SBP), Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), and Summer Food Service Program (SFSP).

According to Senator DeLauro, the bill was introduced to “prevent Chinese meat and chicken from being used in federal nutrition programs given China’s atrocious history of poorly-enforced food safety laws.” DeLauro also believes that “[i]t is a moral imperative to ensure the food we serve America’s children is safe.”

As recently as April 9, 2015, twelve people were arrested in China’s Fujian province on charges of selling meat from sick and dead pigs. Although it is a crime to sell meat from dead or diseased pigs in China, many farmers attempt to circumvent the law due to the high costs imposed on disposing of sick and dead animals in China. This is not the first incident of dead and diseased animals being sold for human consumption in China. In 2013, 46 Chinese residents were charged with selling meat from sick pigs. At the same time, 6,000 dead pigs were found in one of China’s main waterways, the Huangpu River, which runs through Shanghai’s center. According to the charges, one of the accused was found to have bought over 1,000 pigs that had died from disease. The individual slaughtered the pigs and sold the meat during 2010 through 2012. In 2013, Chinese police officials announced that a group of traders in Eastern China were charged with selling rat, mink, and fox meat as lamb meat. The group soaked the meat in red dyes, and added gelatin and nitrates in order to pass it off as lamb.

In 2014, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) investigation conducted an investigation into pet illnesses and deaths that were allegedly caused by chicken, duck, or sweet potato jerky treats imported from China. More than 5,800 dogs, 25 cats, and three people were affected, and over 1,000 dogs died after consuming the Chinese pet treats. Although the FDA could not rule out other causes of illness and death in reported cases, the agency expressed a belief “that there is an association between some of the reports and consumption of jerky pet treats.” The FDA’s investigation is ongoing.

Also in 2014, McDonald’s came under fire after a Chinese TV report showed employs at one of McDonald’s Chinese-based meat suppliers, Shanghai Husi Food Co., using expired meat. Shanghai Husi, which is a division of Illinois-based OSI Group, LLC, also provides meat products to a number of other fast-food chains, including Starbucks and KFC.

Outside of poultry and meat, China has seen quite a few incidences of disease and death from other food soured. In 2008, hundreds of thousands of infant in China fell ill after consuming contaminated milk powder, and in 2012 Chinese officials picked up on some farmers’ widespread spraying of cabbages with formaldehyde. That same year, fish vendors in Beijing were caught using dental cement to tranquillize fish in order to reduce injuries and death during transport. The vendors were pouring zinc oxide eugenol into tanks before bringing fish deliveries to customers.

At roughly the same time as the Shanghai Husi scandal, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) authorized the importation of poultry products from China. According to Senator Sherrod Brown, chairman of the Congressional-Executive Committee on China, “The USDA declared that China is eligible to export processed, cooked chicken to the United States, paving the way for chicken sourced in the United States to be shipped to China for processing and then sold back to American consumers.” Brown also said, “Very soon this processed chicken could end up on our dinner tables and in our school lunchrooms.”

According to the USDA’s authorization, Chinese methods of poultry processing will be subject to annual audits and the imported chicken must undergo inspection upon entry into the United States. The poultry processing facilities, however, are not required to have a USDA inspector on site in any of the four plants that were authorized to process chicken sourced from the United States.

Due to loopholes in the United States’ Country of Origin Labeling Law (COOL), domestic consumers do not always have access to information regarding the origin of their meat. COOL requires certain “covered commodities” to bear a label indicating the food’s country or origin. When it comes to meat and poultry, covered commodities include (1) muscle cuts of beef, lamb, chicken, goat, and pork; (2) ground beef, ground lamb, ground chicken, ground goat. A covered commodity is excluded from the labeling requirement “if the commodity is an ingredient in a processed food item.” COOL’s definition of a processed food item is rather broad.

Under COOL, any “retail item derived from a covered commodity that has undergone specific processing resulting in a change in the character of the covered commodity” is exempt from the labeling requirement. “A change in character” includes “frying, broiling, grilling, boiling, steaming, baking, roasting” in addition to “salt curing, sugar curing, drying,” and “emulsifying and extruding.” Additionally, any covered commodity “that has been combined with at least one other covered commodity or other substantive food component” is also excluded.

Currently, United States public schools participating in the National School Lunch Program purchase 83 percent of the food they serve from private vendors, with the other 17 percent coming from USDA commodities. Ultimately, schools have a say in where they source their chicken and meat products, but without adequate information regarding the origin of these products, that choice may not pack much of a punch when it comes to keeping Chinese sourced meat and poultry out of the lunchroom.

According to the Safe Chicken and Meat for Children Act, schools participating in federal school lunch programs would be prohibited from serving poultry, poultry products, meat, or meat food products that were “produced or processed, in whole or in part, in the People’s Republic of China.” Without an amendment to COOL’s provisions, however, passage of this legislation may put school’s participating in federal lunch programs in a bit of a pickle.

Many schools source their lunchroom fare from distributors, like Golden Star Foods, which touts itself as “the leading School Nutrition Food Distributor in the United States,” and Gordon Food Service. Although Golden Star Foods’ product catalog is proprietary and only available to purchasers, Gordon Food Service displays its wares online. Currently, the distributor’s list of poultry products available for purchase includes simple descriptions, like “Whole chickens” and “Chicken breasts.”

If the Safe Chicken and Meat for Children Act is passed, the laboring oar of the bill’s implementation may fall on distributors like Golden Star Foods and Gordon Food Service, who will have to provide their educational clientele with information about where the meat was sourced in order to stay competitive. Without the addition of this information, schools may forgo purchasing a distributor’s products for fear of violating the Act’s provisions. How the distributors will go about locating this information without any help from COOL, however, would be a much larger egg to hatch.

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