OFFICIALS from the U.S. Department of Agriculture spent quite a bit of time last week defending an Aug. 30 announcement reaffirming the equivalence of China's poultry processing inspection system.
The announcement, which drew criticism from food safety advocates and U.S. legislators, was something of a routine matter but still of significance given efforts to open the Chinese market to additional U.S. exports of poultry and pork. However, bloggers and pundits saw it as a major misstep on the part of USDA, given China's well-publicized food safety and animal disease issues.
In a letter last week, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) reminded Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack of the melamine contamination scandal and the threat of another avian influenza outbreak. His comments were the subject of a New York Times editorial criticizing the USDA announcement and calling on the department to label any chicken processed in China specifically as being processed in China.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D., Conn.) sent their own letters on the matter. All three legislators are members of Vilsack's own party, so the opposition to USDA's equivalence announcement is not a partisan issue.
Administrator of the USDA Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) Al Almanza wrote a response Sept. 24, via the USDA blog, explaining that the determination of equivalence was made "after a long and careful review by our expert auditors" to be sure that China's inspections met USDA standards.
Almanza explained that equivalence for processed poultry was originally granted by FSIS in 2006 — two years after China's initial request — but a 2008 appropriations bill prohibited FSIS from using any funding to implement the rule, which allowed China to export processed chicken to the U.S. That ban was lifted in 2010, and China submitted a new request for an equivalence audit.
FSIS will now conduct annual reviews of China's status using on-site audits to ensure compliance.