America runs on China
Although supermarket labels may not always indicate it, a growing portion of the American diet is now made in China. In 2009 alone, 70 percent of the apple juice, 43 percent of the processed mushrooms, 22 percent of the frozen spinach and 78 percent of the tilapia Americans consumed came from China. But despite a well-documented pattern of chemical adulteration and unsafe drug residues, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has done little to address the growing tide of food imports from the nation. The FDA inspects less than 2 percent of imported food and rarely visits Chinese food manufacturers. Between 2009 and 2010, the FDA conducted only 13 food inspections in China, only 13. China’s food safety system was brought to light when ingredients tainted with the chemical melamine entered the global food supply — including products from well-known brands such as Mars, Heinz and Cadbury.
U.S. food safety inspectors have been overwhelmed by the surging food imports from China since the country joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001. These international business deals allow trade to trump food safety and encourage U.S. agribusinesses and food manufacturers to source food ingredients in China where environmental, food safety and labor laws are weaker and regulatory oversight is lax.
Food safety regulators in China and the United States have turned a blind eye to the growing risk of hazardous foods. U.S. food safety oversight of Chinese food processors has not remotely kept pace with the growth in imports. Though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration prevented 9,000 unsafe Chinese products from entering the country between 2006 and 2010, it is not because of vigilant inspection at U.S borders and ports. The agency’s low inspection rate — less than 2 percent of imported produce, processed food and seafood— almost guarantees that unsafe Chinese products are making their way into American grocery stores. Chinese officials have readily acknowledged the country’s dangerously unregulated food system as “grim.” The country’s decentralized and overlapping regulatory system cannot address China’s sprawling food-processing industry.
Most Chinese exports to the United States are fruits and vegetables that can be harvested and processed with lower labor costs in China than elsewhere. Other exports include processed foods and food ingredients, products which most consumers purchase without considering where they came from. By 2007, 90 percent of America’s vitamin C supplements came from China, and by 2010, China supplied the United States with 88 million pounds of candy. The United States also imported 102 million pounds of sauces, including soy sauce; 81 million pounds of spices; 79 million pounds of dog and cat food; and 41 million pounds of pasta and baked goods from China in 2010.
Joining the WTO has allowed China to pave billion-dollar inroads into American kitchens. These food imports both compete with American-grown crops and expose consumers to a host of food-borne hazards. By 2007, half the garlic Americans ate was grown in China, although that figure fell to 23 percent in 2009 as the recession and falling dollar dampened import demand. Before China entered the WTO, the United States produced about 70 percent of the garlic Americans consumed. Over the past decade, imports of Chinese garlic more than quadrupled, while U.S. garlic cultivation dropped by a third. In addition to driving U.S. farmers off the land, Chinese imports have sent some American consumers to the hospital. Imports from China have escalated despite repeated discoveries of deadly contamination, intentional product adulteration and food-borne illness in Chinese products. Headlines of melamine-laced baby formula, salmonella-tainted seafood, carcinogenic honey, deadly blood-thinning drugs and poisonous food packaging from China appear almost daily in media outlets around the world.
Although U.S. agribusiness promised the trade deal would be good for America and expand U.S. farm exports, it has only benefited corporate exporters of a few products like soybeans and poultry. Corporate-driven trade deals under the WTO prioritize investments and commerce above all other goals. This model threatens consumers who could be sickened or killed by unsafe food, and it exposes Chinese sweatshop workers to agricultural toxins and other dangers. Meanwhile, U.S. employers are offshoring American jobs and U.S. farmers are losing their land and livelihoods to benefit corporate controlled food manufacturers. The environment also suffers from overuse of agricultural chemicals and pollutants. Food production today is a global enterprise, undergirded by investors who see agriculture in terms of dividends and derivatives, not nutrition, health or access to food.
Food-safety advocates are raising alarms over a decision by the Obama administration to permit chicken processed in China to be sold in the US. China does not have the best track record for food safety, and its chicken products in particular have raised questions. The country has had frequent outbreaks of deadly avian influenza, which it sometimes has been slow to report.
Under the new rules, the Chinese facilities will verify that cooked products exported to the United States came from American or Canadian birds. So no U.S.D.A. inspector will be present in the plants. 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. The USDA approval also raised a host of issues for American consumers about guarantees of food safety: For starters, how will consumers here know that the processed chicken and turkey that is shipped back to the United States is the same chicken and turkey that was originally sent from the United States or other USDA-approved country in the first place? If USDA inspectors will not be on site in China, how will U.S. consumers know whether or not the poultry has been mishandled during processing, tampered with, or contaminated? Even if Chinese processing plants have passed a FSIS inspection in the past, what is to guarantee that such sanitary conditions and processing techniques would be the same when China begins processing poultry to be imported back to the United States? Furthermore, without a country-of-origin label, how will U.S. consumers know whether or not the chicken or poultry product that they decide to purchase and consume came from China? And if no such labeling is required, then how else will U.S. consumers be able to make informed decisions about the chicken or poultry product that they put into their bodies?
Regulators in the United States and China have allowed risky foods to infiltrate American supermarkets. Clearly the answer to China’s food safety problem is not greater corporate influence or expanding food trade with the United States. A decade of free trade policies has produced a culture of poisonous product adulteration and food-borne illness that sickens millions of consumers each year.
Below is a brief look at how China impacts the integrity of our trust in Organic standards.
▪ Organic Products from China Can Contain an Unlimited Amount of Heavy Metals
While certified organic does mean that the producer cannot add pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals and other toxins when growing the produce, there are no rules about the outside environmental factors such as pollution. A farmer in China can use water with mercury or chemicals on the crops and keep the organic label. Since many parts of China have been experiencing extreme pollution (to the point that some have been buying canned air out of desperation), a lot of its water is heavily polluted. But the lack of traceability in comparison to U.S. organic farms means you’ll have a hard time finding out any more information on how it was grown.
▪ China Has Almost No Environmental Regulations
China is on a verge of a complete environmental disaster. Lack of regulation has caused the country to experience record air pollution in Beijing, and studies have shown that at least 40% of rivers are polluted, as well as 90% of groundwater and about 1/5 of the country’s farmland is polluted. This is the same water that may be used to water the “organic” crops. While there are companies that are honest and wise when it comes to growing organic produce, it is nearly impossible to know who to trust.
▪ Agencies and Government Departments in China are Not Operating Properly
Guangzhou Daily reported that when one consumer wanted to inform someone about fake organic produce, they were bounced between four government departments before finding out that none of them had the authority to deal with this problem. At the same time the USDA is trying to keep track of all the shipments coming from China (though the agency has fraud allegations of its own), but they have reported that several shipments of organic beans and berries were full of unsafe pesticides. Whichever agency on the Chinese side approved the shipment was not following regulations. Reports have also stated that numerous Chinese food growers simply buy organic certification paperwork illegally and then grow foods in a non-organic way.
▪ Supplements and Herbs from China Are Often Contaminated with Lead
Because many herbs have detoxifying properties, they absorb heavy metals easily. It has been tested, for example, that chlorella from China was most contaminated with aluminum, and also contained arsenic, cadmium and lead. Although not organic, many conventional green tea companies have illegally used banned chemicals. Can it happen to organic tea? – It might, because organic certification in China cannot be trusted.
▪ Corruption: China Has Forged Organic Certification Label and Other Documents
Rumors about companies in China forging documents have been around for years. And in 2011 USDA released evidence of a fraudulent organic certificate made by a non-certified company. The firm used this fake certification to pass non-organic soy, millet and buckwheat as organic.
▪ Organic Products in China are Often Certified by Third-Party Agencies
The agency in charge of certifying organics in China is The Chinese Organic Certification Center (COFCC). However it has been reported that they only inspect 30% of products, the rest are inspected by private third-party firms. Though organic products imported to the US are supposed to be certified by a USDA certifier, there are not enough certifiers to meet the need, and the USDA relies on hiring third party certifiers in China. On at least one occasion the certifier from China provided the paperwork but did not physically confirm that the organic food complied with the organic regulations.