Bettina Siegel, of the blog The Lunch Tray, is once again at the center of the discussion about better quality food in U.S. school lunches. This time she’s questioning whether Chinese chicken should be allowed in U.S. school lunches.

A former lawyer and mother of two in the Houston School District, Siegel was one of the leading voices against “pink slime” in school lunches, and now she’s raising alarm bells over the possible inclusion of Chinese chicken in U.S. cafeterias.

On August 30, 2013, the USDA announced that it will allow four Chinese plants to process chicken that was raised and slaughtered in the United States, Chile, or Canada, and export it back to the United States. Given that China has a food safety record that’s questionable at best, and that the USDA doesn’t have enough inspectors to properly inspect U.S. plants, the announcement raised some concerns, particularly among Siegel’s readers.

Siegel started doing some digging, and found a Q and A on the USDA website that reads:

Will chicken processed in China be included in school lunches?

No. The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service ensures that products included in [sic] school lunch program 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.

According to Siegel, “To parents with little knowledge of how school food programs operate (i.e., the vast majority), this statement from FSIS would seem to settle the question — and provide solid reassurance for those concerned about Chinese-processed chicken being fed to their kids at school. But the FSIS statement is in fact quite misleading.”

The assurance only applies to foods supplied through the USDA; schools also make food purchases through private vendors.  A USDA spokesperson clarified that schools must comply with a “Buy American” regulation, but that rule only requires that “[p]roducts that are processed in the United States and comprised of at least 51 percent domestic ingredients are considered domestic.”

In plain language, this means that Chinese chicken products could, conceivably, still end up on U.S. school lunch trays.

In response to Siegel’s article, the USDA clarified on its blog, “Before China can begin sending cooked chicken to the U.S., they must certify plants that will process the chicken for export, and provide this list to FSIS. To date, this has not been done and China has not provided a time frame for when they intend to begin exporting to the U.S.”

A USDA representative called the idea of Chinese chicken appearing in U.S. lunchrooms, “within the realm of possibility, but probably not likely.”

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