USDA may allow China to import chickens

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Department of Agriculture wants to allow China, where 14 people have died of bird flu since 2003, to sell chicken to the United States.
calendar icon 12 February 2007
clock icon 3 minute read

The agency is drafting a rule that would permit China to export cooked poultry to Americans, even though public health officials have been warning for several years about a potential avian influenza pandemic.

Food safety watchdog groups are alarmed, but U.S. poultry producers, who would be facing new competition, are generally keeping mum. Some believe that the proposed rule could be a bargaining chip to get the Chinese to drop a ban on U.S. beef imports that they imposed after a case of mad-cow disease in 2003.

The World Health Organization has said that chicken and other poultry are safe to eat when cooked at the proper temperatures. USDA spokesman Steven Cohen said that since the exported chicken would be cooked, there'd be no risk to public health.

"It does appear at this time there would be no objections" from USDA's Animal and Plant Health Services, he said.

Avian flu is a contagious disease among birds, and sometimes pigs. It can infect humans -- if they either come in contact with infected birds or eat raw or undercooked infected poultry -- in the form of a severe respiratory infection.

Cohen cautioned that the rule-making on Chinese chicken exports was in its infancy. But food safety advocates said they were surprised that the USDA was thinking about allowing poultry exports from China, given that the country has had 22 cases of the avian flu virus since 2003.

"The reality is China has had cases of avian influenza within their flocks," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group concerned with health and nutrition issues. "It wouldn't seem like a good time to be importing poultry, even cooked poultry."

The National Chicken Council, the industry's trade group, had no comment about the new rule. "We're going to have to wait and see," said spokesman Richard Lobb.

James Sumner, president of the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council, said his "sole concern" would be whether China could satisfy the USDA's health and safety requirements.

The proposed rule would continue to loosen restrictions on China's chicken exports. In 2006, the USDA approved a rule that allows China to export cooked chicken to the United States, provided that the raw chicken China used came from elsewhere.

Cohen said the chicken had to be from either the United States or Canada, because the birds had to be from countries free of any trace of the avian flu with food safety precautions similar to those in the U.S.


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