If you’re reading this, you may already be a member of the proverbial choir. You may be at least generally aware of what is happening to the food-supply chain in this country, somewhat familiar with the writings of Michael Pollan, aware of the work of activists such as Jamie Oliver, and committed already to buying local. I also know that there is a lot more that we do not know that would appall us. But how often do we see a story about food safety inspections on the front page of a national newspaper for all to read?
This Washington Post story is good news and bad news all in one revelation. The bad news is obvious: the U.S. Department of Agriculture is in the process of expanding a new pork-inspection program that has utterly failed us in its pilot stages; the good news is that this is news at all.
At the same time, another story has not yet made the front page and hasn’t made it into any of the newsletters devoted to the safety and security of our food chain that I already receive. We have a loyal shopper to thank for alerting me last week.
The USDA ruled Aug. 30 that China may process chicken that has been raised and slaughtered in the U.S. or Canada and export it back to the U.S. in the form of soups and chicken nuggets, none of which will be required to have “country of origin” labeling. We have been assured that none of this chicken will be fed to our schoolchildren, but that hardly qualifies as even a nugget of good news. Four plants in China were audited and subsequently approved, but there will be no USDA inspectors on site from now on and only periodic on-site reviews (not inspections) of the Chinese operations. China has been poisoning their own people for years with water, soil and air that is unfit for human consumption.
The most interesting aspect is that the push comes from the U.S. beef industry, which has lobbied heavily for this change. The beef interests believe that opening this opportunity for China will encourage them to reopen their country to our beef exports. Even the U.S. poultry industry is only “cautiously optimistic” that this is a good idea for food safety or a business advantage for the U.S. So we are back to Big Beef and its influence on our food system once again. I think it’s time for Big Consumer to be heard on these issues because obviously no one is asking us.
Case in point: The USDA website has two pages devoted to Frequently Asked Questions, and not one of those “questions” or answers mentions the recent history of China’s food-safety system or deals in any way with the labeling of these products. I can’t help but think that if the public was actually asking the questions, these issues would have been raised.
The worst-case scenario would be if the Chinese processors slip their own chicken into the processing plant or subcontract with processing plants that are not on the list. And why wouldn’t they do that if they could sell more chicken, make more money, and get away with it? Just look at what the garment makers across the world get away with under the radar until a plant collapses and kills hundreds of people.
Even our plants here in the U.S., which do have USDA inspectors on site, can’t always turn out meat products that are safe for us to eat, and now we are asked to trust Chinese plants with our health and safety. And as far as we know, they will not have any inspectors. I am sure that government risk assessors have combed the data for the potential for bad outcomes with this new policy, but I would rather trust my own safety and that of my family to the friendly farmer and grazier at the farmers’ market and the small Virginia- and Pennsylvania-based businesses that process their animals.
It’s too bad that most people in this country do not know about their options or do not have the opportunity to buy local. I have a sneakin’ suspicion that they would look to buy local as well if they knew the facts.