Dim Sum Anyone?

Many of us try to clean up our eating habits at the start of a new year. I’m not sure why I thought it made sense to start by making my own bone broth, when there are so many other fixes to prioritize in my diet. Nonetheless, I read that chicken feet are good to throw in the broth because they contain more cartilage and therefore more collagen (which, I guess is good for you).

You can’t find chicken feet in an American grocery store, so I ordered a variety of meats and bones online direct from an American farm. Apparently, I did not read the fine print because a few days later, 11 pounds of vacuum-packed chicken feet arrived on my porch. The music from the movie Psycho played in my head as I stared at what had to be the feet of about 50 chickens. They never made it into my kitchen or my pot because I phoned a friend who grew up in Taiwan and she took the feet off my hands to whip up her favorite childhood snack.

Herein lies the beauty of international trade to fix the mismatch between production and cultural preferences. Americans produce more poultry than any other country but mostly like the white meat. From beer snack to dim sum, many Chinese love chicken feet.

Arbitrage in Paws

Chicken feet command just a few cents per pound in the United States where they might be rendered into pet food. They are mostly treated as a wasted by-product of poultry processing that costs producers money to properly dispose.

China is the world’s largest market for chicken overall, and in this case, being accused of having big feet is a good thing. American “jumbo-sized” paws command between 0.60 and 0.80 cents per pound in China, far higher than other markets.

Crying “Fowl” on Import Bans

The United States and China have been crying “fowl” on each other’s food safety measures for years. In January 2015, China banned imports of U.S. poultry and related products due to detection in the United States of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, a legitimate immediate response to an outbreak that necessitated the destruction of over 40 million infected birds.

The United States sought an exemption for chicken paws treated at a sufficiently high heat to kill any virus present, a process backed by science and international guidelines set by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), but China rejected the appeal. And despite containment of the disease by May of 2015, China’s restrictions on U.S. poultry imports remain to this day.

Game of Chicken

Lifting the import ban on U.S. poultry is surely under discussion as part of any deal to end the current tariff war with China. And this isn’t the first time chicken feet have popped up in tariff antics between the United States and China.

In 2009, the Obama administration took a “safeguard” action to protect the U.S. tire industry from imports by imposing an emergency 35 percent tariff on Chinese-made tires. Weeks later, China threatened U.S. poultry imports with an anti-dumping duty.

Chinese farmers complained American poultry producers enjoyed a subsidy in the form of low feed prices, enabling them to sell chicken paws in China at below market cost. The Chinese government imposed an average 64.5 percent anti-dumping duty on U.S. poultry exports from some 35 companies, causing exports to fall off by 90 percent. The U.S. government took a complaint to the WTO in 2011 and won its case in 2013. (Footnote: China sued the United States in the WTO over its tire duties and lost.)

Will the Chicken Disputes Continue to Simmer?

Chicken trade has been a sore spot in bilateral agricultural trade since 2004 when the United States and China banned each other’s poultry products after an outbreak of avian flu. Though China quickly removed its restrictions, the United States has effectively continued its prohibition through strict conditions on the importation of chickens processed in China. Chinese producers want the United States to make good on its recent commitments to allow imports of cooked chicken from China.

If these long-simmering disputes are resolved, millions of Chinese could again see American chicken feet grace the dim sum buffet at Chinese New Year festivities.

I have no doubt there’s a reason that chicken feet are a beloved snack around the world. But before it arrives on the table, those gnarly claws must have the yellow membrane peeled off, their toenails clipped, and calluses removed like a disembodied day at the chicken spa. China can have them – I’m too chicken to order any more paws from the farm.