Chicken From China
A Meat and Dairy Industries Article from


James McWilliams
December 2017

The United States, the world’s largest chicken producer, hardly needs this chicken. But as UC–Davis professor of veterinary medicine Maurice Pitesky told me, “If it’s cheaper, we’ll take it.”

Chinese chickens

The following is the opening of my cover story for the Winter 2018 The American Scholar. The rest of the piece can be found here.

On June 21, 2017, ExporTech, a California-based poultry wholesaler, accomplished something both commonplace and unprecedented. The commonplace was to import to the United States five cartons of cooked chicken. The unprecedented was to do so from Qingdao, China. The United States had never imported chicken from China for human consumption. The ExporTech shipment indicated that that situation was about to change.

The inspection form issued by the Chinese government described the shipment’s contents as “Cooked Battered Darkmeat Chicken Chunks.” Another line on the official form further specified the meat as “poultry/Patties-Nuggets.” The exporting company—Qingdao Nine-Alliance Group Co., Ltd.—certified that the enclosed poultry product was “sound, healthful, wholesome, clean and otherwise fit for human food.” It added that the contents “are not adulterated” and that the chicken was “cooked throughout to reach a minimum internal temperature of 74 degrees C (165 degrees F).” These imported nuggets, in other words, were ready to be heated and eaten.

Who ate them is impossible to say. ExporTech, a private company with five employees and an office located in a two-bedroom residence in Pasadena, is under no legal obligation to report where, when, or to whom it sold these 110 pounds of imported chicken. Furthermore, because the chicken arrived in cooked form, it was not subject to Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) laws. During my research for this article, the company’s website was down, its informational email address bounced my query back, and when I called the listed phone number to ask questions about that single shipment of imported chicken—starting, for example, with “why?”—a woman told me the owner was not there and immediately hung up.

ExporTech’s June shipment was made possible by a May 2017 Trump administration trade deal with China. According to the agreement, the United States could again export beef to China—banned since 2003 because of an outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease—in exchange for allowing the Chinese to export cooked chicken to the United States. For the beef industry, this exchange was a long-awaited boon. “REAL news!” President Trump tweeted, celebrating the deal.

As matters stand in November 2017, two important restrictions are in place. One, the Chinese can export only cooked chicken. Two, the cooked chicken cannot originate in China but must come from Chile, Canada, or oddly enough, the United States. (The ExporTech chicken came from Chile.) As to why the chicken now has to cross the Pacific twice before arriving in Pasadena, Brian Ronholm, former deputy undersecretary of food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, told me that it’s surely a temporary measure. “No one,” he said, “really believes anyone would use that system.” Instead, he explained, the one instance of importation by ExporTech represented “the U.S. government’s demonstration of good faith” as it prepares to permit what the Chinese are ultimately seeking in exchange for U.S. beef: the freedom to export to the United States chicken raised, slaughtered, and processed in China.

Five days before ExporTech imported chicken nuggets from Qingdao, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) entered the following note in the Federal Register: “FSIS is proposing to amend the poultry products inspection regulations to list the PRC [People’s Republic of China] as eligible to export to the United States poultry products from birds slaughtered in the PRC.” Those last six words represent a critical distinction. With considerable corporate support backing the move, including President Trump’s close ties to the beef lobby, FSIS’s proposed budget increase in an era of dramatic federal downsizing, and the U.S. chicken industry’s hopes of leveraging this agreement to export chicken feet (called “paws”) to China—Chinese-sourced chicken will almost certainly enter the food supply of the United States soon. Jim Sumner, president of the USA Poultry and Egg Export Council, told me to expect to see that happening sometime in 2018.

The United States, the world’s largest chicken producer, hardly needs this chicken. But as UC–Davis professor of veterinary medicine Maurice Pitesky told me, “If it’s cheaper, we’ll take it.” Likewise, Sumner said that if the Chinese manage to get costs down to compete with U.S. chicken, they should be allowed to play ball in the United States, just as they already do with their chicken in Japan, Hong Kong, and Europe. Ronholm estimates that Chinese chicken will never amount to more than two to three percent of the U.S. chicken supply. Even the National Chicken Council has celebrated the Trump deal, noting that “the low volume of trade is likely to have little effect on supply, demand, and prices.” The beef lobbyists, for their part, will remain over the moon no matter how much Chinese chicken comes our way. To them, it’s the price of admission. 

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