November 25, 2013 9:06:55 AM
JACKSON -- State Rep. Tom Miles says the Department of Agriculture allows chickens slaughtered in the United States to be processed in China with no labeling requirements for products shipped back to the United States, and he hopes to address the issue next year.
The Forest Democrat says that when the Legislature opens in January, he will offer a truth-in-labeling bill similar to current Mississippi law that requires origin labels for catfish.
But poultry industry leaders say state lawmakers shouldn't rush into anything. Mississippi Poultry Association President Mark Leggett says labeling should be a federal issue, not a state one.
Since July 1, 2008, diners at Mississippi restaurants have been getting more information about the catfish on the menu. State law requires restaurants and food service businesses to identify the fish's country of origin. If a restaurant sells imported catfish, its menu must include that information.
Miles said he will pattern his truth-in-labeling bill after the catfish law. He calls it a consumer safety issue.
"I want to put a sticker on it and let the public know where it comes from," Miles said. "The public wants to know what kind of food they're getting."
Miles represents House District 75 in Scott County, one of the leading areas for poultry production in the state. Other big poultry counties are Smith, Leake, Simpson, Jones, Neshoba and Wayne.
Leggett said three plants in China have been approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to process U.S. and Canadian chickens and ship them back here.
Aaron Lavallee with the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service said that if the processed product comes from China, it will be labeled as such, unless the product has been repackaged in the United States or elsewhere. In those cases, he said, the product would be labeled as from the country where it was repackaged.
"Consumers should know that any processed poultry from China will be produced under similar food safety standards and conditions as U.S. processed poultry. Furthermore, FSIS performs increased inspection activities for countries that are just beginning to export to the United States," Lavallee said in an email.
Miles said that's fine.
"I want us to sell chickens to anybody who wants to buy them," Miles said. "Families want to know where their food is being processed and what they're eating. If you go the grocery store and see this chicken was grown, killed and processed in the U.S. as opposed to one that has nothing -- you want your family safe."
Miles said labeling is a way of protecting the Mississippi industry.
Poultry and eggs were Mississippi's top agricultural product in 2012, valued at $2.53 billion, according to the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce. Soybeans ranked second at $1.16 billion. Mississippi sells chicken to 77 other countries.
Leggett said Mississippi ranks fifth among U.S. states in chicken exports, and China is Mississippi's fourth-largest customer for chicken.
Leggett said he has not seen specifics about what Miles' proposes but he agrees that "Mississippians prefer eating Mississippi chicken, and our goal is to sell more Mississippi chicken around the globe."
"Americans like American chicken," Leggett said. "We are eating in this country all the chicken we can eat. The growth in the industry is going to come from exports. The Chinese market is opening. ... We don't want to do anything that closes that door.
"Currently, Canada, Chile, France, Israel and South Korea are approved to export chicken to the U.S. and more than 99.5 percent of all chicken sold in the U.S. is raised in this country," he said. "So, China is competing for less than 1 percent of the market."
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