China & food safety

No doubt you'll be thrilled to learn that folks from China's food safety agency are coming to the U.S. to tour our beef facilities.

Because Chinese food safety is so state-of-the-art and all.

No melamine. No 46-year-old chicken feet prettied up and sold as food (20 tons worth mind you). No babies dying from tainted formula, no rat and fox meat routinely sold as lamb and beef. No deadly pet treats mysteriously killing thousands of American dogs and cats. Nope, China is a model of food safety and an example to the world. Of how not to do it, that is.

The back story on this tour is that China banned imports of U.S. beef back in 2003 when we had a case of BSE, aka Mad Cow Disease. There are those who wish to reopen that market, so our barn doors are opening to prove that there is no longer any danger of that dreaded, if over-hyped, disease.

The plan is that China will eventually phase out the ban and implement staged importation of boneless and bone-in cuts. According to Rabobank, China will need to import 15 to 20 percent more beef in each of the next five years, as they are unable to keep up with increasing domestic demand, fueled by a growing middle class and greater prosperity among their people in general.

It is thought that other nations will be first to fill this supply gap, with Australian beef already approved and meat from Brazilian cattle soon to follow.

Some U.S. beef already straggles into China via black marketing through Hong Kong and Vietnam.

This is all well and good. A new trading partner might help American farmers and ranchers to market beef profitably, although domestic supplies are tight due mostly to various adverse weather events, from drought to unseasonal blizzards.

Clearly, however, as with all such things, there are downsides to be found.

Take, for example, China's recent acquisition of Smithfield Pork, the world's largest pork producing company. Not only is this likely to increase the cost of pork for American consumers, but there are rumors among the pork raising community that the introduction of porcine epidemic diarrhea virus to American pigs coincided with the sale, and may be related to Chinese tours of hog facilities at the time. Ten percent of our pig population has been wiped out by that disease.

It is a coronavirus, which causes older hogs to fall ill, while killing piglets at high rates. One of the best ways to combat its spread seems to be strong biosecurity on hog farms.

I contacted Purdue University pork expert, Dr. Allan Schinckel, about whether this rumor might be true. He assured me that the origin of the disease in the U.S. would probably never be proven, but that the rumored scenario was one of many possibilities.

How about beef? In April Chinese officials reported a fresh outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Jiangxi. Could touring "safety" experts bring that economically devastating disease to our beef herd?

Perhaps not, but the visit is certainly food for thought on the safety of our own food supply.

And speaking of safe food and China: The way is rapidly being cleared for chicken processed in that country to be sold as food in America.

People are getting nervous and I rightly so. Nancy F. Huehnergarth has a petition up on, urging Congress to keep the well-traveled meat out of our schools and supermarkets when it finally does arrive here.

Imagine sending your youngsters to school, where lunches have already become a Petri dish of nutrition experimentation, and having them fed, unbeknownst to you, chicken processed in a country where egregious food safety issues abound. Not a comforting thought to a parent is it? (Of course since a huge number of kids won't eat the new "nutritious" lunches anyhow, it may be less of a problem than we might think.)

Huehnergarth mentioned a Business Week story about ongoing congressional hearings into the topic of tainted pet treats and the potential for danger to humans from these possible chicken imports.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, chairing a hearing of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), said, "Just last month, the FDA said that reports of illnesses had increased to 5,600 pets, including 1,000 dog deaths, and now three human illnesses. While no cause has been identified despite extensive study, the illnesses may be linked to pet treats from China.

Last year, the USDA declared that China was eligible to export processed, cooked chicken to the US, paving the way for chicken sourced in the U.S. to be shipped to China for processing and then sold back to American consumers," he said.

This is cause for head scratching on so many levels. How could it possibly be safe and cost-effective to ship meat half way around the world for processing and then ship it back? The only answers I can come up with are cheap labor and processing shortcuts.

U.S. domestic facilities fall directly under USDA inspection rules, and meat processed here wouldn't need a passport to get from those plants to our dinner tables and school lunch counters.

Brown went on to point out yet another potential scenario for the advent of the PED virus in the U.S. as well, tainted animal feed from China being fed to hogs here, thus giving the disease a foothold.

We will all be paying the price for PEDv for a long time. The cost of pork chops, hot dogs and bratwurst for Sunday cookouts inevitably will rise. The advent of FMD in this country would not only probably require the purging of tens of thousands of hoofed stock, it would also inevitably drastically raise prices to our consumers and destroy our current trade status with trusted partners.

I think we need to stop panicking about GMOs, which so far can't be proved to have hurt anyone, and get on the phone to Washington about American beef, pork and potentially poisonous chicken, which certainly can.

Fultonville dairy farmer MARIANNE FRIERS

is a regular columnist. She blogs