adventures in craft beer and real food

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Chicken Little

Sometimes I think policy-minded food bloggers are like Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther Strikes Again when he delivers the line, "Now then, what do we know? One, that Professor Fassbinder and his daughter have been kidnapped. Two, that someone has kidnapped them. Three, that my hand is on fire."

In case you haven't heard, the USDA has expressed interest in changing some poultry-related trade rules with China. Specifically, the USDA wants to import cooked chicken products from China provided that the chickens originally came from the United States or Canada.

To which part of this development have bloggers devoted their attention?

The part where they get their facts wrong.

Many reputable blogs, most notably Eat Local Challenge, conveniently forgot to mention that the imported chicken will be cooked to safe service temperatures. In fact, Expat Chef went so far as say that the chickens would be "processed" (which normally means slaughtered and broken down) in China. That is not, in fact, what the USDA has in mind. The idea is that the chickens would be raised in the United States or Canada, slaughtered here, and then sent overseas to be cooked. This cooked chicken will then be imported back into the US.

Moreover, many sources ground their objection to the policy in a supposed risk of HPAI H5N1 avian influenza. This risk is greatly exaggerated. The World Health Organization says that conventional cooking temperatures can completely inactivate the virus (PDF, 204 kb). The temperature the WHO gives, 70°C (158°F), is substantially less than the proper safe service temperatures given by the USDA. Yes, that temperature has to be reached in all parts of infected meat to kill the virus. However, this CCP is just as likely to be performed adequately here as anywhere else in the world. If undercooked contaminated meat did get through, it is possible that there could be a HPAI outbreak in the United States as a result. But while it increases the risk, I think most would agree that it is an acceptable one with the proper control measures.

The USDA has to approve each processing facility on an individual basis. After reading Fast Food Nation, I have serious doubts about whether a USDA inspection actually means anything. I mean, you can't tell me that there are the same kinds of negligence in US processing facilities as there are with the problems noted by Food and Water Watch in a letter to Congress. But the real objection, then, should be to clean up the poor condition of many domestic poultry processing facilities.

But there are several points that I feel haven't gotten the treatment they deserve.

First, this is OLD news. The policy was proposed on November 23, 2005 and blogs are only now crying foul?

Second, what in the ham sandwich are we doing importing cooked food from other countries? The real problem that I have with all of this is that food has gotten to be such a commodity that we're importing what can only presumed to be Chicken McNuggets and Hungry Man Dinners. I can understand importing raw foods. But cooked foods? What ever happened to the joy of cooking food yourself? Since when were we worker bees content with MRE rations? If that doesn't illustrate just about everything that's wrong with the food industry, I don't know what does. This doesn't mean that meat cooked abroad should be banned, but the fact that there's such a demand for crap food should be alarming to everyone. And to say nothing of the fossil fuel expenditure to send chickens across the Pacific. Twice.

Third, this arrangement was developed through diplomacy with China. The idea is something like this: if we import chicken from China, they're more likely to import our beef. Why don't they want to import our beef? Because the US government has a "if you don't see it, it must not be there" approach to BSE. Instead of, you know, testing a statistical sample of cows continuously to ensure food safety (and indeed, preventing independent companies and individuals from performing such tests by law) as other places like the European Union and Japan have done, we'd rather outsource more jobs and increase our chances of dying of the avian bird flu (if some analysts, with the caveat noted above, are to be believed). You would think that at some point it would be in our interests to actually take responsible steps to improving the quality of meat in this country in a documented and verifiable manner so we don't have to bend over backwards for other countries to accept our agricultural exports.

And even if this plan goes the way the US wants it to and China starts importing US beef, we're still increasing the risk and potentially promoting the spread of BSE around the globe.

Finally, many bloggers founded their objections on terms that seem racist to me. Rutsuyasun at Terminus Reality said, "Do we trust China to properly cook the chicken? I don't." This from a country that has been making chicken dishes for a very long time. This from a country that produces "our nice crap" as Stephen Colbert recently put it. But in all seriousness, many sophisticated products come from China from pharmaceuticals to electronics to organic-labeled food. If there were an outbreak of H5N1 avian influenza in, say, Spain, would these same people be saying that they don't trust the Spanish to properly cook a chicken?

The real issue is that there is a demand for chicken cooked in far away places. Cooking is no longer something that is done in our own homes or even our own local restaurants. This is a new step toward the delocalization of food and cooking. But we don't have to buy it. We don't have to settle for less. You can still buy a chicken from your local farmer.


The Expatriate Chef said...

Jack, thanks for the look beyond Avian flu into the other aspects of this issue. I am just as worried about US beef as US-China-US chicken. I am opting out, and looking for grass-fed local sources. I hope more people do the same. It is just as criminal to ignore BSE as avian flu. I would say with any high-production, low paying processing job, there is great room for error, China or US. All of our concerns are valid.

The Expatriate Chef said...

Sorry, Nicholas ... the Eat Local site has an odd way of showing comment authors! My apologies!

xenobiologista said...

You need to get infected chicken in contact with noninfected chicken in order to generate a domestic AI outbreak. What are people planning to do, stand in the middle of a barn full of broilers eating imported chicken fingers? >_<

(And doesn't the phrase "chicken fingers" sound rather bizarre when you think about it? Chickens don't have fingers =D )

xenobiologista said...

Sorry double post...also your "And to say nothing of the fossil fuel expenditure to send chickens across the Pacific. Twice." reminded me of a comment, I think it was in Nature, that said something like "Thanks to international trade, the chicken has become the most migratory bird on earth."

Nicholas said...

xenobiologista... You obviously understand the relevant microbiology better than I do, so maybe you can assess how scientifically valid of a concern this is. But I was under the impression that it's likely that the facilities that are going to process these chickens would also work with Chinese chickens. This would seem to open opportunities for cross contamination. There could be improper sanitation of product-contact surfaces, improper mixing of cooked and uncooked product, mix-ups of raw chickens, etc. Currently the US government doesn't allow any poultry products to be imported in countries where AI is known to be an ongoing concern.