Chinese Poultry Rule Stirs Controversy

As signs point toward a move by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to permit importation of Chinese processed poultry products to the U.S., some question whether this would be a good idea.

In late January, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) published an interim rule in the Federal Register that would loosen restrictions on the importation of poultry and poultry products from countries like China that have experienced outbreaks of highly infectious avian flu. Because of avian flu fears, Chinese poultry has been essentially banned from the U.S. since 2004. Unlike an outright ban, the interim rule would permit poultry product imports from countries that have had avian flu outbreaks as long as the meat has been cooked to 165°F.

Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Jan. 28 questioning the new rule. “I am concerned that this reversal in APHIS policy will remove a barrier that prevents poultry imports from countries that have experienced outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza, such as China,” she wrote. The letter asked Vilsack what science-based information was considered before the rule was published and how much staffing will be required to ascertain that each imported poultry product has been properly cooked.

“FSIS has been very conservative about approving poultry products coming into the United States,” said Robert Buchanan, PhD, professor and director of the Center for Food Safety and Security Systems at the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “That’s been a tradition that’s been pretty rigorous. I’ve never seen much variation in the degree that they allow different countries to approach meat and poultry imports. They must do it exactly the way we do it. That’s held them in good stead for the last 40 years, and if they did allow China to export to the U.S., I would expect that same rigor unless there is a major change in policy.”

Last September, the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled that a U.S. appropriations restriction banning FSIS from moving toward permitting Chinese poultry imports was illegal.

“If China is capable of producing poultry under the same requirements that FSIS has for companies within the U.S., they would be hard pressed to keep them out, because that leaves the U.S. open to a WTO complaint,” Dr. Buchanan said.

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