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Don’t Play Chicken With America’s Public Health

I have not enjoyed standing against some of my Senate and House colleagues, the Chinese government and a vast array of companies and producer organizations on the issue of “Chinese chicken.— But as a Member of Congress and chairwoman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, and Food and Drug Administration, I have insisted the public health and safety of American families be the top consideration, not simply trade.

And with the recent agreement on imported poultry products from the People’s Republic of China included in the fiscal 2010 Agriculture appropriations conference, I am proud to say this important standard has been upheld. There will be no going back to the status quo, but instead, imports will be possible only when health standards equivalent to those in the U.S. are assured.

Since becoming chairwoman in 2007, I have worked to ensure that all legislation under our purview maintains this crucial commitment to consumers, and that the public health is never subordinated to ancillary matters, such as trade considerations. As such, for the past three years, and with the help of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, I have included a ban on processed poultry products from China in the Agriculture appropriations bill. This was required because, under the Bush administration, the Department of Agriculture was lax in its responsibility to put the public health first, and it engaged in a flawed process that would have endangered American lives.

In determining the safety of Chinese poultry in 2004, the USDA inspected only three slaughter and four processing facilities, even though its own estimate was that 25 plants might be exporting to the United States. And even given this small sample size, the results were highly disturbing. Food safety deficiencies were found in five of the seven food establishments visited. At two of the plants, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service report describes “grease, blood, fat, pieces of dry meat, and foreign particles— on product contact areas of conveyor belts and plastic containers.

Indeed, the sanitation issues were so egregious in two of the facilities that FSIS auditors would have recommended that they be delisted or made ineligible to export to the U.S. A follow-up visit in July 2005 — to only four slaughter facilities — found that all four would have been delisted for failing to meet food safety standards, had these plants been eligible for export.

Despite these findings, and despite the absence of a meaningful regulatory system in China — even Chinese health officials have described their food safety situation as “grim, with high risks and contradictions— — the USDA under President George W. Bush approved processed poultry exports from the PRC. This raised a red flag to many observers, including Members of Congress, particularly after it became clear that this deal had been rushed through the regulatory process. And in December 2007, we first instituted a ban on these poultry exports in the fiscal 2008 appropriations bill.

The change in administration this year brought new leadership and new priorities at USDA. That is why, after studying the issue thoroughly through hearings and investigations, I set forth to work with this new team to restart the USDA evaluation process for processed poultry imports, while still including robust assurances that the public health would be protected. The outcome of these efforts can be found in our new fiscal 2010 Agriculture appropriations legislation considered this week.

In securing this agreement, I am proud to say that we were able to add significant public health protections to the conference language. The final bill ensures that the PRC’s application for exporting processed poultry will not be shown preferential treatment from the USDA. It expands the language to include all processed poultry products, not just cooked poultry. It ensures that USDA publicly posts the results of any inspections it conducts of Chinese poultry facilities a full 30 days before imports can begin. It specifies a timetable — within 120 days of enactment and every 180 days thereafter — that USDA must report to Congress on this issue to ensure that the PRC is complying with U.S. food safety and inspection requirements. And it mandates that USDA propose a new regulation, subject to public notice and comment, if it decides to permit poultry imports from China. All of these important protections were missing from other proposals.

Most importantly, the final conference agreement firmly establishes that Chinese poultry imports must live up to American sanitary conditions before being shipped to the U.S. This includes requiring more on-site audits, more on-site inspections and an increased level of port-of-entry re-inspections. It also requires USDA to report frequently to Congress on the implementation of any rule authorizing China to export poultry products to the U.S. This will allow USDA to monitor conditions in China on a frequent basis.

We cannot play chicken with the public health, and I would not have signed off on any agreement that did not prioritize the protection of American families from food safety risks. With this agreement, however, we have put in place strong preventive measures that will ensure poultry products from China are safe, as well as a system of USDA review to ensure this privileging of trade over health does not happen again.

While I have great trust that the new leadership at USDA understands the paramount importance of protecting the public health, I will not abdicate our responsibility of oversight on this important issue. I will continue to monitor the processed poultry situation very closely as we move forward, to ensure that the promise of this agreement becomes real. We cannot allow trade issues to trump the public well-being ever again. From USDA to the FDA to these halls of Congress, we must always remain vigilant when it comes to food safety. And we must remember, whether the issue is processed poultry or anything else, that the public health is always our most important consideration.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) is chairwoman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, and Food and Drug Administration.

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