c.2013 New York Times News Service

c.2013 New York Times News Service

The Department of Agriculture on Friday approved four Chinese poultry processors to begin shipping a limited amount of meat to the United States, a move that is likely to add to the debate over food imports.

Initially, the companies will be allowed to export only cooked poultry products from birds raised in the United States and Canada. But critics predicted that the government would eventually expand the rules, so that chickens and turkeys bred in China could end up in the U.S. market.

“This is the first step towards allowing China to export its own domestic chickens to the U.S.,” said Tony Corbo, the senior lobbyist for Food and Water Watch, an advocacy group that works to promote food safety.

The USDA’s decision follows years of wrangling over the issue and comes as Americans are increasingly focused on the origin of their food.

In recent years, imports have been the source of contamination, prompting broader worries about food safety. The Food and Drug Administration just released an analysis of imported spices, showing high levels of salmonella in coriander, oregano, sesame seeds and curry powder.

China does not have the best track record for food safety, and its chicken products in particular have raised questions.

Recently, an FDA investigation tied the deaths of more than 500 dogs and a handful of cats to chicken jerky treats that came from China. The treats, which were eventually recalled, additionally were blamed for sickening more than 2,500 animals.

The proposed sale of Smithfield Foods to Shuanghui International, a major Chinese food processor, has added to the industry scrutiny. In July, senators from both parties questioned Larry Pope, the chief executive of Smithfield, about the implications of his company’s deal for food safety and U.S. employment.

Pope responded that the deal was intended to address the rising demand for meat in China and that U.S. workers would be employed in that effort.

Under the new rules, the Chinese facilities will verify that cooked products exported to the United States came from U.S. or Canadian birds.

And because the poultry will be processed, it will not require country-of-origin labeling. Nor will consumers eating chicken noodle soup from a can or chicken nuggets in a fast-food restaurant know if the chicken came from Chinese processing plants.