The USDA has responded to a controversy about serving processed chicken imported from China in the National School Lunch Program. A few days ago, Bettina Siegel of The Lunch Tray claimed that the USDA is misleading parents about whether those foods will be served to schoolchildren.
A Q&A about China’s poultry processing system equivalence on the FSIS website claims that chicken processed in China will not be included in school lunches, saying “the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service ensures that products included in school lunch programs are produced, raised, and processed only in the United States, its territories or possessions, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, or the Trust Territories of the Pacific Islands.”
The problem is that school districts buy some of the food they serve from the USDA and some from private vendors, who will probably purchase chicken processed in China. Because of labeling laws, any produce that is made of at least 51% domestic ingredients is considered domestic. So, for instance, a private vendor could sell a school some chicken salad that contains 49% chicken that was cooked in China and it would still be considered an American product. And the product doesn’t have to bear a country-of-origin label.
The USDA response is that schools do purpose some of their foods from that agency, and some purchased on the commercial market. All of the food provided through the USDA is 100% domestically grown and produced. The Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act “requires them to purchase domestically grown and processed foods to the maximum extent practicable.” USDA stressed that “FSIS has a stringent inspection program in place, which includes increased inspections at port-of-entry and annual audits of China’s system for processed chicken.”
In other words, it’s quite likely that the lunch your child eats at school may include chicken processed in China. And we have to trust the Chinese government to make sure that food safety standards are being upheld.