NORFOLK -- West soon could meet East when it comes to chicken eaten in the United States.
The federal government gave the okay for China to begin processing poultry for shipment to the U.S. Only a handful of facilities (4) are approved to handle the chicken. Any product sent here would have to be cooked fully.
Given China's history with food safety, including a recent one involving tainted pet treats linked to the deaths of hundreds of animals and illnesses in thousands of others, the thought of chicken for human consumption is not sitting well with many people.
In fact, a single online petition has garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures.
"They don't really seem to take care of the products they send out, and I don't want to put that in my kids," said Claire Benjack of Norfolk.
Arianne Perkins, a spokeswoman for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), explained China asked permission to export chicken in 2004. Since then, the agency's Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) spent years auditing the country's poultry processing inspection system. FSIS determined that China’s system is "equivalent to that of the United States, and cooked chicken imported from China would be processed under equivalent conditions as in the United States."
Chickens cannot be raised or slaughtered in China. (The USDA actually rejected China's request to slaughter chickens that would be used for export.) They must come from the United States, Canada, or Chile.
"I can understand the people's concerns, but I do think we have to give some credit to what the United States Department of Agriculture inspectors are doing," said Todd Haymore, Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry.
"USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service is absolutely the gold standard in the world as far as food safety inspections are concerned. If the United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety Inspection Service has said it's okay, we should have a certain level of comfort there," Haymore told 13News Now. "As long as they've met that gold standard by the USDA, again, we're looking at safe, and healthy, and wholesome foods."
Colleen Stephens has a lot less confidence.
"How are they gonna make sure that it's not source from China? There's no way. They can't even check the foods that come into this country now," Stephens said.
Stephens is more knowledgeable than most when it comes to imports, a fact prompted by necessity more than anything else.
She and her family were among those affected by Chinese drywall. The imported material used in home/building construction and renovations was blamed for corroding metal in houses and is believed to have made some people sick.
"There's no way to hold these foreign manufacturers accountable. Our government needs to do something to protect us," stated Stephens. "There's so many things that are coming in from these other countries, and there's no checks and balances on what's coming in."
Perkins told 13News Now any processed and cooked chicken arriving in the United States must be labeled clearly on its shipping container. That label must include the facility that handled the chicken, and there must be a guarantee that it was processed according to all guidelines set forth by the USDA. Shipments from China are subject to increased inspection. FSIS also would review the Chinese facilities annually.
Although shipping containers would be labeled, if the processed and cooked chicken is repackaged, the new package need not list China as the country of origin. For example, if a company uses the chicken for nuggets or as an ingredient in food, you may not know it came from China.
On behalf of the USDA, Perkins issued this statement:
As always, FSIS is fully committed to protecting the nation’s food supply and if China begins exporting processed chicken products to the United States, all food safety steps will be taken as if the products were processed in the United States.
At this point, no major American poultry company has indicated it will make China a stop in its production process.