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Saturday, May 20, 2006

Kung Flu Chicken

Actually, CNN-Money's headline is better than mine: Why the chicken crossed the ocean--twice. The USDA has approved the import of canned chicken from China--provided the chicken being canned is American!
In other words, American chicken will travel across the ocean once and return cooked and canned--to be sent on its way to a supermarket shelf near you.

The U.S. is the world's largest poultry producer. Almost all of the chicken consumed by Americans last year, valued at $50 billion, was produced domestically at about 30,000 chicken farms across the country. Total chicken production in 2005 totaled about 35 billion pounds.

If the U.S. is already self-sufficient in meeting its own chicken demand, what's the economic rational behind this China deal?
The article quotes a couple of experts who don't really have an answer to that question; the only thing they can come up with was that it was something the Chinese wanted as part of a trade deal. I've got a few possible explanations:
  • The government believes that the trade deficit just isn't big enough, so we've got to start importing our own stuff.
  • Oil is still way too cheap for anyone to think of using it wisely.
  • Bird flu just isn't spreading fast enough, and Chinese birds haven't had much opportunity to contract American diseases.
  • Some Americans are still employed, and a few even get benefits. Something must be done!
The last one is probably closest to the truth. Paul Craig Roberts and others frequently write about how almost all new jobs in this country are ones that can't be outsourced: cleaning, mowing, flipping. I think our cheap-labor conservatives see this as a challenge. Expect in the future to see proposals for modular motel rooms which can be shipped to China for cleaning, modular lawns that can be sent to El Salvador for mowing, and burgers that can be sent to Bangladesh for flipping. (This chicken deal isn't a lot different from that.) W's "guest workers" will man the forklifts and drive the trucks to get everything to and from the docks.

The article doesn't say how the chicken is sent to China. I would guess that the birds are sent live, which would make the ships one of the worst PETA nightmares imaginable (not to mention how wonderful it must be to work on one of those ships). Otherwise, I guess they would be shipped frozen, meaning that a substantial amount of processing has already occurred, and huge amounts of energy are being wasted in keeping the meat frozen.

In any case, this seems to be about as clear an example as you can get that globalization has little to do with efficiency and everything to do with exploiting cheap labor.