Is the Fox Guarding the Hen House? Big Business in School Food

How chicken from China could jeopardize the safety of school food.

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At the start of 2014, I made my new year's re(s/v)olution: Improve food literacy among kids and their parents to help them make smart meal choices and to advocate for better school food. But a recent news story has me changing my goal. Parents and children are making much smarter choices than Congress these days, and it's Congress that needs the food education!

Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it will permit Chinese facilities to process poultry raised and slaughtered in the U.S., Chile or Canada, then export cooked poultry products back into the United States. Chicken processed in China can (and will most likely be) included in school meals. School districts may not even know they are purchasing Chinese-processed chicken because there are no requirements to label it as such.

School food advocates such as Bettina Siegel have been working hard to research the implications of this decision. Their research prompted 14 members of Congress to send a letter to ranking members of the Senate and House committees on appropriations and agriculture asking them to:

1. Ensure that none of the chicken processed in China will end up in school food or other federal child nutrition programs; and

2. Prevent a rule that would allow China to export raw chicken to the United States.

These informed members of Congress have good reason to be concerned. China has a terrible record of food safety, and there will be no U.S. food inspectors in the facilities processing chicken. In 2008, six babies died and over 300,000 babies became ill after ingesting melamine-tainted milk powder. In 2013, Kentucky Fried Chicken stopped buying chicken from 1,000 Chinese farms because of safety concerns regarding chickens fattened on illegal drugs.

Just this past October, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned pet owners not to let their dogs and cats eat jerky treats with chicken and duck from China because they were linked to nearly 600 pet deaths and over 3,600 illnesses.

If it isn't safe to let animals eat chicken products from China, why would Congress let our children eat them?

The answer is beef. It is widely believed that this ruling is the first step in allowing China to export domestically-raised, raw poultry into the United States, which many hope will open up the lucrative beef market in China that has been closed to U.S. beef suppliers since 2003. This is why 14 of our U.S. Representatives have asked the House Appropriations Committee to prevent further legislation that could broaden Chinese poultry imports. They are not willing to put the interests of the beef industry ahead of our children's health and safety.

[See: U.S. News Best Children's Hospitals 2013-14.]

Corporate influence over legislation isn't news, even in the realm of school food. In 2011, the frozen food industry lobbied to ensure that pizza counts as a vegetable. And the dairy industry does its best to ensure that milk is a mandatory part of every school meal. In 2013, it petitioned for permission to add aspartame and other non-nutritive sweeteners to flavored milk sold in schools without any front-label disclosures.

Unencumbered by corporate influence on Congress, the USDA does an amazing job of regulating the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Programs. Its recommendations in 2011 would have limited the amount of "pizza vegetables" and starchy vegetables children consume at school. And its current standards are transforming not just children's lunch trays, but their palate and future eating habits as well. But corporate lobbyists work hard to distort our representatives' view of healthy school food, and those representatives can (and do) block the USDA when the USDA determines that serving French fries every day to overweight pre-teens isn't a brilliant idea.

[Read: How Congress is Cutting Aid to Hungry Kids.]

So too with chicken. School children eat a lot of it. And if Congress has its way, they'll eat a lot more of it from facilities in a country with an abysmal food safety record. But what does that matter when the beef industry will finally have access to the skyrocketing market in China?

It matters. And I believe that if our representatives in Congress turned their ears away from the lobbyists and had a chance to hear from real experts and their own constituents, they would protect our children from food safety risks.

You can help me educate Congress by writing to your representatives and senators. And you can sign a Change.org petition started by school lunch activists Bettina Siegel, Nancy Huehnergarth, and Barbara Kowalcyk. National outrage helped to rid our schools of "pink slime." We can do it again with unsafe chicken.

[See: Fresh Fish Shouldn't Stink and Other Rules of Thumb.]

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Chef Ann Cooper is a celebrated author, chef, educator and enduring advocate for better food for all children. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Ann has been a chef for more than 30 years, over 15 of those in school food programs. Her books, Bitter Harvest and Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children, established her as a leading advocate for safe, sustainable food. Known as the Renegade Lunch Lady, Ann has been honored by The National Resources Defense Council, selected as a Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow and awarded an honorary doctorate from SUNY Cobleskill for her work on sustainable agriculture. In 2009, Ann founded Food Family Farming Foundation (F3), a nonprofit focusing on solutions to the school food crisis. F3's pivotal project is The Lunch Box, a web portal that provides free and accessible tools, recipes and resources to support school food reform.