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.
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.
The Office of Management and Budget had to review the policy change, a process that normally takes weeks, if not months. But the 2006 rule was on a fast track. The OMB received the rule from the USDA on April 18, approved it April 19 and officially announced it April 20, the same day that Chinese President Hu Jintao was in Washington on an official visit.
Word that the USDA wanted to ease restrictions further surfaced early last month when an Indian news service reported that a top USDA official had been in China recently for talks about poultry exports.
"The old rule hasn't even cooled off and they're already moving toward an expansion," said Tony Corbo, a legislative lobbyist for Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit food safety watchdog group. "There doesn't seem to be a track record to evaluate what China has done, even under the old system. Why are we doing this?"
The issue could have just as much to do with cows as it does chickens. The beef industry has been unable to tap the Chinese market since Beijing blocked American beef imports after a case of mad-cow disease surfaced in 2003.
China, meanwhile, has been trying for several years to export chicken here. The United States is the world's largest producer of chicken. Less than 1 percent of the chicken consumed here comes from abroad.
Cohen denied that the proposed chicken rule had anything to do with an effort to coax China to drop its beef ban, but industry insiders and observers said they thought it was a factor. They said China wants a quid pro quo for dropping its beef ban and often links issues in trade talks.
A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy couldn't be reached for comment.
Since the late 1990s, avian flu, known as the H5N1 virus, has been spreading among some bird flocks in Asia. More recently it has spread to parts of Europe. The World Health Organization has reported 272 human cases and 166 deaths since 2003.
Several public health experts said they were unaware of the USDA's efforts to allow China to export poultry to the United States.
"My eyebrows raise when I hear it," said Dr. Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association. "Then I have to ask, `OK, how could one do this safely?'"
Critics said USDA inspectors previously have found problems with China's food inspection system, including sanitation and whether tests for E. coli, a bacteria that can cause severe food poisoning, were being conducted. Some new safety controls were subsequently put in place.
Cohen said the USDA would annually inspect plants in China that are selected to process chicken bound for the United States.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who chairs the House Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee, said that the proposed rule was "dangerous" and that her subcommittee would monitor the issue.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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