When my first son started eating table foods, I started reading up on food. I thought the advice to know where my kid's food came from meant to make sure it came from me (vs. the floor, the dog's bowl, the back yard). The more I learned, however, the more disturbing the whole food scene became.
As we learn more about how different ingredients, additives, and processing techniques affect the quality of our food and our health overall, we are all becoming more accustomed to reading labels, understanding ingredients, and knowing where our food comes from. Packaged food must be labeled, fresh food must list it's country of origin and can only claim “organic” if strict guidelines are met.
But what about highly processed foods? Can you ever really know what is in it, or where it came from? You might think that the USDA and it's increasingly complicated system of rules and regulations would have safeguards in place and require labeling to keep you safe and informed. In many cases, it does. And in too many others, it does not.
Take, for example, the recent clearance of processed chicken in China. As reported by the New York Times, the USDA approved Chinese authorities to certify processing plants that will ship processed poultry to the US. As the birds must be raised in the US, Canada or Chile, and only processed in China, they will not be required to have a “country of origin” label on them. You will have no idea if that chicken nugget has been to China and back. Or what that "tender piece of white meat" had to do to earn it's place in your bowl of soup.
In 2010 a ban on imported processed poultry from China was imposed after inspectors determined that processing plants were not in compliance with US standards. Poor sanitation and training left the risk high for contamination from Salmonella and Listeria.
With the recent report of Chinese Jerky making hundreds of dogs sick, and many other questionable food reports like maggot sausage or tainted baby formula, many people are uneasy about the idea that food processed in China can make it into the human food supply without any consumer-level labels required.
Other critics of the lifted ban suggest that the move is only one step away from allowing poultry that is raised and slaughtered in China into the US, and opening the door for contaminated food in our homes. Other concerns cited include shipping standards and keeping chicken safe while it is in transport from the US to China and back again.
What can you do?
Know what you are eating, and if you don't know exactly what it is and where it came from, don't buy it. The American love of fast, easy food is fueling the market for cheap and processed foods. Raise your standards. Buy organic, buy local and buy fresh. Or skip the meat altogether.