Each year, one in six Americans gets sick from eating contaminated food. There's a little-known rule that could change the chicken you eat without you even knowing it. It's a move that has some parents questioning who's focused on food safety.
When given a choice of what to eat, Shannon Johns’ kids are like most others.
"Since they were big enough to eat solid foods, they’ve loved chicken nuggets," said Johns.
But Bryce and Abby’s favorite food could soon change.
For the first time, the USDA has agreed to allow chicken that has been raised and slaughtered in the U.S. to be shipped to China to be processed then shipped back for us to eat.
"It just seems weird to me that they would slaughter them, package them up and send them abroad to be broken down and sent back," said Johns. "It just seems silly."
Organic farmer Dorsey Barger can hardly stomach the change.
"It was the most fascinating and discouraging thing to take place in the food industry," said Barger.
Barger has owned a farm for four years. She started farming after owning her own restaurant for 23 years. Right now she has about 60 chickens at HausBar Farms.
"Because the labor in China is so much less expensive than the labor here, it actually does make some sick economic sense to ship our food all the way across the world and back to us again. It's crazy," said Barger.
This won't impact Barger's farm, but it concerns her.
"We're making the food source less sustainable. There's no reason to do it, except for profit," said Barger.
Bettina Siegel is a food safety advocate who writes The Lunch Tray blog. She was the force behind getting pink slime removed -- those beef parts treated with ammonium hydroxide to make it safe for people to eat which had been used in McDonald's burgers.
"We see people, especially parents, really care about what they're eating, what they're feeding their kids, where it comes from and what's in it," said Siegel.
As a mom, Siegel’s biggest concern is what it means for families.
China’s food safety record
"This is a country that has a very poor safety record," said Siegel.
China has had some big food safety issues. In 2008, six children died and 300,000 others were sickened by infant formula laced with melamine. (Melamine is a chemical – a by-product of coal that is high in nitrogen. It can raise the protein level in foods and thus garner more money at market. For consumers, it means you get an inferior food laced with a deadly chemical.)
A year earlier, the FDA recalled thousands of pounds of pet food processed in China after 17,000 pets became sick and 4,000 died. The FDA later charged the Chinese company with substituting the deadly chemical melamine for wheat gluten.
"A million dollars worth of lamb was sold to Chinese consumers that turned out to be the meat from rats and foxes," said Siegel. "This is a system that's so weak, it can't even catch these egregious problems, and so that's why we're concerned about having our chicken processed there."
Already much of what we eat and drink is imported from China. The most recent figures from 2009 show 70 percent of apple juice, 22.8 percent of garlic, 21.5 percent of frozen spinach and 19 percent of all seafood consumed in the U.S. comes from China.
The USDA said the "processed chicken product must be fully cooked" and "no chickens raised or slaughtered in China will be allowed to be exported to the United States." It will also continue to inspect the plants in China.
But the federal government inspects less than two percent of all imported foods. According to Food and Water Watch, the FDA only conducted 13 food inspections in China between June 2009 and June 2010 -- the years immediately following the infant formula and pet food scares.
No labels required
There's a bigger concern with the chicken changes. Chicken that is processed in China into foods like nuggets, tenders and patties will not have to be labeled. So, consumers won't know what they're buying.
"There's absolutely no legal requirement on manufacturers to tell you if the chicken in their product was manufactured in China," said Siegel.
“Really? That concerns me," said Johns. "We can’t control everything they do, but when it comes to the food choices they make, I need to be able to have some sort of say over that."
This may leave Abby and Bryce searching for a new favorite food.
The USDA said it is still waiting for the final paperwork. That means at this point, no manufacturer in the U.S. has begun processing chicken in China yet, but they could if they wanted.
What about school lunches?
This chicken could end up in school lunches.
"There are two ways schools get their food: If it comes from USDA, it is 100 percent American. However, if it comes from private vendors, it absolutely could contain chicken processed in China, as long as it is not in that product more than 49 percent," said Siegel.
Here’s what the USDA said:
The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service purchases approximately 20 percent of food for the National School Lunch Program on behalf of schools. The product purchased by AMS must be of 100 percent domestic origin, meaning that they are produced and processed from products which were produced, raised, and processed only in the United States.
Schools also make independent purchases on the commercial market to meet the needs of their students. These purchases are governed by section 12(n) of the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act (42 U.S.C. 1760), which requires participating schools to purchase domestically grown and processed foods, to the maximum extent practicable.
A domestic commodity/product is defined as “an agricultural commodity that is produced in the United States and a food product that is processed in the United States substantially using agricultural commodities that are produced in the United States.” Schools can consider a product domestic if it is processed in the United States and comprised of at least 51 percent domestic ingredients Schools have the option of using only products that are 100 percent domestically grown and processed.
Where local schools get their food
KVUE called local school districts to find out if they get their food from the USDA, private vendors or both. The following school districts responded:
- Austin ISD: Both USDA and private vendors
- Dripping Springs ISD: Both USDA and private vendors
- Eanes ISD: Both USDA and private vendors
- Georgetown ISD: Both USDA and private vendors
- Leander ISD: Both USDA and private vendors
- Round Rock ISD: Both USDA and private vendors
Petition to change
Siegel has started a petition to get Congress to change this. She’s already got 300,000 signatures.
More info on this issue
The USDA currently allows U.S. shrimp to be sent to China to be processed, including breading.
Census Bureau data shows that last year, the U.S. imported $1.9 billion worth of seafood from China. The majority of that ($70 million) was shrimp and prawns.
Go here for an FAQ about China's poultry processing.
How much do you really know about your food? Go here for an interactive quiz from Food and Water Watch.
Go here for "A Decade of Dangerous Foods From China," a report from Food and Water Watch.