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China’s love of US chicken feet proves a recipe for a perfect trade

Lucy Hornby
A man sells chicken feet at a market in Shanghai, China.
Qilai Shen | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Americans eat about 9bn chickens a year, but not the feet. Southern Chinese, on the other hand, import about 300,000 tonnes each year of the delicacy known to diners as "phoenix claws" and to the industry as "chicken paws". It's a match made in free trade heaven.

And yet this perfect trade of paw to claw was only reached this year, thanks to a small item included in the "early harvest" of deals announced by the Trump administration this spring. That's despite intense negotiations under way since George W Bush was in the White House.

The item is "cooked chicken", or chicken sold in cans and frozen dinners. And no, it does not mean that Chef Boyardee is about to sell canned chicken feet at ShopRite. Instead, the US poultry industry has succeeded in opening the US market to chicken cooked in China after a long and dramatic saga designed to open the Chinese market to American chicken feet.

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Chicken feet are not particularly expensive. In fact, they are worth zero to most Americans. But margins on industrially farmed chicken in the US are so tight that selling the feet to China in enormous frozen blocks rather than throwing them away in the US makes for a nice difference in profits.

For years the Chinese market has been on-again, off-again, closed to US-bred chicken due to bird flu and other diseases, and creating a booming business for smugglers. While that made no difference to Cantonese diners, it ate into the profits of US chicken producers.

The US poultry industry has challenged the Chinese barriers to American chicken "paws" at the World Trade Organization (twice). But it also embarked on a decade-long, all-out effort to woo the Chinese side that involved Congress, civics lessons and considerable frustration on all sides.

The problem from the US chicken producers' point of view was that economically struggling Jilin province in north-east China is home to a chicken processing industry. The Chinese do not eat much pre-cooked chicken (although processed food is growing in market share as urban lifestyles get busier). But entrepreneurial Chinese chicken processors had set their sights on the US market, and Beijing was willing to leverage chicken feet to crack it open.

The problem from the Chinese point of view was the US Congress. A one-woman stand by representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, whose home state is not a stronghold for the poultry industry, was holding up the deal. Ms DeLauro was adamantly opposed to any cooked chicken from China entering US markets because of the food safety risks in the canning process (remember The Jungle?), and China's abysmal food safety record. She introduced a gag order that forbade the Food and Drug Administration from even discussing Chinese chicken exports with Beijing.

The Chinese side was incredulous. "The whole US system to them was baffling and frustrating," recalls James Rice, at the time Tyson Foods' representative in China tasked with explaining US congressional deadlock to Chinese chicken processors. "They were very surprised and maybe they still don't believe to this day that Congress could be divided against itself, or that Congress could have a different opinion from the White House."

US chicken producers proposed limiting the trade to chicken carcasses that had been shipped and frozen to China, cooked and canned, and then shipped back. (Shipping and energy costs are so cheap and Chinese labour so far below American canning industry wages that this is a competitive proposal for cheap canned chicken, if you are not concerned about the carbon footprint of your dinner.)

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