My good friend Chuck Jolley penned a commentary for Feedstuffs in June, titled "Beefing up Chinese Market," that questioned if the U.S. has potentially sacrificed public health in a chicken-for-beef trade-off with China.
I think it is time for a little history to look at the issue from another angle.
He called the discovery of the first cow in the U.S. with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) the “Christmas surprise.” At the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety & Inspection Service, it was called “the cow that stole Christmas” because FSIS staffers were working nearly around the clock that holiday to write an interim rule for cattle slaughter regarding safe removal of potential prion-containing materials.
After the rule was submitted, more USDA employees traveled the world trying to keep U.S. beef exports intact.
After countries in South America and Asia alike banned U.S. beef, more boots hit the ground trying to reassure countries that we had the issue under control and that the risk to their citizens was nonexistent.
Countries began importing U.S. beef again during the George W. Bush Administration, with two exceptions: China and South Korea.
Jolley's commentary said the “really substantive talks began near the end of the Obama Administration.” I think he meant talks with China, but it followed the statement that “it took years before serious negotiations finally took place” — and that leaves me confused.
I was at USDA from 2005 to 2008 — two years after the BSE cow was discovered and serious negotiations were already underway. I was part of them, trying to explain how FSIS guaranteed — through daily, continuous inspection at slaughter plants — that specified risk materials were removed.
In my four years at the agency, Chile, Japan, Vietnam, Brazil, Argentina and others all reopened their markets to U.S. beef, but China and Korea still would not.
At the same time, we were working with China through several audits to get a handful of China's chicken processing plants, including federal inspection and laboratory services, to be at least equivalent to the U.S. system of chicken processing.
They reached that bar, and in April 2006, FSIS first published a final rule that would allow China to export cooked chicken meat to the U.S.
As a physician with a strong public health background, there is no way I would have let that rule be published if I did not feel that the product was safe for consumption. I had been in some of those plants and had dined on chicken meat processed and cooked there.
These same plants were already exporting chicken meat to Japan and the European Union — two countries that are notoriously fastidious (some would say paranoid) about food safety. The EU would not even import U.S. chicken at the time.
However, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, (D., Conn.) attached a provision in Section 747 of the House agriculture appropriations bill that stated: “None of the funds made available in this act may be used to implement the final rule.”
That same language was repeated for years, and the road was blocked for Chinese chicken.
So, here is the rubber that is now meeting the road: To export beef to China, a proposed final rule must be published by July 16 that will allow China to export chicken meat to the U.S. Will Congress, once again, block this action? Will China like the proposed rule?
As for Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue saying U.S. beef now will have access to China's growing middle class, I would suggest that we already have that access — via Hong Kong and Macau.
Macau — officially called the “Macao Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China” — and Hong Kong collectively have about 0.1% of the world's population, yet they import more than 5% of the world's beef and are ranked sixth among all countries for imported tonnage, surpassing even the EU.
Now for one last thought, and then I am out of here.
The U.S. had a $750 million business going by selling China the feet and other stuff we don't like from chickens. We want China to start buying those parts again, so maybe we need to buy a little cooked chicken meat from China?