On Tuesday, Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ)  held a Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) to discuss the safety issues of processed poultry and pet treats from China.  Senator Brown serves as CECC chairman and Rep. Smith as co-chair.   “Americans want to know where their foods come from and want to make sure that everything is being done to keep it safe,” Senator Brown said in his opening statement.

Dan Engeljohn, assistant administrator for the Office of Field Operations within USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, appeared before the CECC to defend the agency’s determination that China’s approach to food safety in chicken processing is equivalent to the United States.  During questioning, Engeljohn emphasized that FSIS has only established equivalence for China’s processing system, not its slaughtering system, but he also said China was “close to hitting the mark” in its slaughter audit as well.

Engeljohn explained that USDA has received from China a list of four plants that the country has certified as eligible to export processed chicken to the United States.  But before exportation can occur, China must develop a proper export health certificate that demonstrates that the poultry was raised and slaughtered in either the United States, Canada, or Chile and that is was cooked to a proper temperature.

Englejohn also said that China has submitted a draft export health certificate for review by FSIS and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.  Once the agencies agree on language and the Chinese government accepts it, China must inform USDA when it plans to begin shipping the processing poultry to the United States.

One of the key themes of the hearing was whether the United States should trust Chinese food processing given, as Brown described it, “China’s poor enforcement of their own laws and rampant corruption.”

At the hearing, Rep. Smith, pointing out that China is the only dictatorship to which the USDA has granted food safety equivalence, discussed whistleblower protections and fraudulent practices that could potentially dupe USDA.  “The word of the Chinese government is usually not trustworthy,” Smith said. “It’s not a stretch to say if we rely on them for documentation, that’s an Achilles heal that is huge,” he said.  And, “what happens if a Chinese employee or anyone in the chain of command blows the whistle?” he asked, expressing concern about human rights violations in China. “Are they thrown in jail?”

In his response, Engeljohn said that on site audits provide an additional level of assurance.  FSIS follows every mandate given to the agency to ensure that our food supply is safe, he said, explaining that any country that wants to send meat or poultry to the United States has to be audited and deemed equivalent first.

Brown and Smith also raised concerns during the hearing about Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) for processed products. They repeatedly questioned both Engeljohn and another witness, Tracey Forfa, deputy director for the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, about how consumers can tell whether their food or pet products contain ingredients from China.

Brown held up two kinds of frozen meals that contain chicken–one with a USA product label on it and the other that did not indicate country of origin.   He asked if either could contain chicken processed in China without a label. “The COOL-labeling would not be applicable to a product such as that,” Engeljohn said. “The meat products that would be covered are whole muscle cuts or ground products.”

Brown asked Forfa similar questions about pet food, including whether a USDA-labeled product could contain China-imported vitamins and minerals without labeling.  Forfa said the FDA would get back to him about his questions regarding pet food labeling. She also reported to the commission that the FDA is still working to solve the mystery behind thousands of illnesses, including about 1,000 dog deaths that have been reportedly linked to Chinese pet treats over the years.