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The Bird Flu Epidemic Has China Scrambling for Brazil's Chicken Feet

The devastating avian flu outbreak in the US has left China—the world's biggest market for chicken feet—seeking alternative sources for their foot fetish.

by Hilary Pollack
Jul 15 2015, 4:00pm

Photo via Flickr user daremoshiranai

Just because you may not have noticed a price spike in your spicy chicken sandwiches doesn't mean that the recent bird flu outbreak in the US hasn't been totally devastating. On the contrary, it has been an utter catastrophe. Millions upon millions of chickens were killed this spring in efforts to contain the virus, and egg prices have experienced a serious incline, and some stores and restaurant chains even implemented egg rations.

But there are also less obvious consequences related to the epidemic, and many of them are actually overseas. Say, in China, which banned poultry imports from the US in January due to concerns about the spread of avian flu.

READ: Start Hoarding for Omelets, Because Egg Rations Are Really Happening

But Chickity China, the Chinese chicken, and the Chinese still need a steady supply of something very tasty that those banned birds have: feet.

Chicken feet are extremely popular in Chinese cuisine, and not cheap, either. So China is turning to Brazil—another major meat supplier—to source them, and the deal's not bad for the South American nation, which already provides about half of China's imported broiler meat.

According to Bloomberg and the Brazilian Trade and Investment Promotion Agency, officials from China performed a ten-day inspection in Brazil earlier this month to sample new chicken suppliers in four different states. You gotta have feet, feet, feet.

"We Chinese like to eat innards, feet, or wings, while American consumers find those things unappetizing and like to eat the breast—Chinese find the breast too bland," Ma Wenfeng, senior researcher at advisory firm Beijing Orient Agribusiness Consultant Ltd., told Bloomberg.

Although no new cases of avian flu have been reported in nearly a month, this year's outbreak led to the deaths of almost 50 million chickens and turkeys and led to a market loss of $3.3 billion, so tensions are still running high in regards to the virus, which many fear could still return at any time. The UK's Guardian has even questioned whether the recent epidemic has served as proof that the US factory-farming model is unsustainable.

Still, US farmers have cold feet—pun intended—about the pending China-Brazil deal, as it could compromise the big moneybags that they've raked in from China, which is the most lucrative international chicken-feet market. The US is feeling the heat of competition, as Brazil—which has been going through a sort of agricultural renaissance over the past two decades—was recently named the second-largest exporter of food products in the world (behind America) by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and Food and Agriculture Organization.

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And with a population inching close to 1.4 billion, China is worth cozying up to. In 2014, it spent $170 million on chicken feet from the US.

That's one lucrative foot fetish.

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