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Playing chicken with the food trade

By Geoffrey Murray Source:Global Times Published: 2013-9-26 18:08:02

Illustration: Peter C. Espina/GT

Illustration: Peter C. Espina/GT

 

The economic concept of the 'global village' has brought us a strange example in the food sector.

The US Department of Agriculture has changed its rules on chicken processing to allow the task to be done by Chinese companies.

The chickens will be raised and slaughtered in the US, shipped to China for processing and the final product shipped back to American shops.

The initial plan doesn't mention if it will be sold in China, but, given Chinese consumers concerns about food safety, and fears over the spread of bird flu, one could envisage a clever marketing campaign offering "safe American chicken."

However, some Americans were quick to raise the alarm over food safety, and to raise questions as to why this bizarre packaging project was being launched.

The most common view is that it's actually nothing to do with chicken, but rather, involves another popular meat - namely beef.

The US dairy industry is desperate to sell beef to China (as is its UK counterpart), salivating over the figures showing that, while per capita consumption of beef is very low, Chinese still eat 10 percent of the world's output at present.

China banned beef imports at the end of the 1980s due to worries over an outbreak of mad cow disease in various countries.

Once the chicken starts flowing from the US to China for packaging, so the argument goes, then the case for allowing in beef surely will be strengthened; China can't produce enough, so imports are the only answer

Well, although not a big beef eater, I wouldn't say no to a juicy American T-bone steak or a piece of English sirloin, whether bought in a restaurant or supermarket for home cooking.  

And, after all the food safety scares here, it's tempting to see "buying foreign," even if a more expensive option, as the answer.

Yet, can even foreign products be relied on? There's growing evidence that food producers in the US and elsewhere are just as adept as their Chinese counterparts in adding things to products that aren't necessarily healthy.

For instance, the authoritative US magazine Foreign Policy claims "a complex web of American agricultural, trade, marketing, and scientific practices together are helping drive a 'globesity' [global obesity] epidemic."

The writer cites the example of Mexico, which the United Nations now says is the most obese nation in the world, and which gets a lot of its food from its American neighbor.

The danger comes from things like a switch from use of sugar as an sweetener in a wide range of foods to cheaper "high-fructose corn syrup" - far more addictive and health threatening - and "fat loading" of processed meat to enhance taste at the expense of a healthy heart. "Healthy food" thus becomes junk food.

Americans worry about the safety of Chinese-processed chicken. In Beijing, we have to be equally cautious about buying foreign food brands.

Posted in: Twocents-Opinion