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When I scan my Inbox each day, I single out emails from Food & Water Watch because they keep me up-to-date on back-room shenanigans that affect relevant issues that are of concern to me... like the food I buy in the grocery store! And when they ask me to do something, I do it.
Paul Keleher
June 8th, 2011

Potentially Unsafe Food Entering U.S. from China

New Report: China’s Food Exports to the United States Triple in 10 Years

Washington, D.C. – While Europe suffers from a “super toxic” E. coli outbreak, a national advocacy group warns that potentially unsafe food from China could provide the next food safety scare in the United States. Whether it’s frozen or canned produce, seafood, candy, vitamins, or any type of processed food, these products or their ingredients increasingly come from China, where food manufacturers are legendary for cutting corners, substituting dangerous ingredients, and compromising safety in order to boost sales. Officials there have publically acknowledged their inability to regulate the country’s sprawling food production sector and last week China’s highest court even recommended stiffer penalties—including death—for those found violating food safety regulations.

The new report A Decade of Dangerous Food Imports from China, released today by Food & Water Watch, analyzes how many common foods (many of which children eat on a daily basis, including apple juice, candy, and canned fruit) come from China.

“Our next safety scare could come compliments of China,” says Food & Water Watch executive director Wenonah Hauter. “Given the scale of the distribution of poorly regulated Chinese food exports, it’s just a matter of time before a problem with one unscrupulous facility gets exported around the world and causes another major health threat.”

China’s food exports to the U.S. have tripled over the past decade to nearly 4 billion pounds of food in 2010, worth nearly $5 billion. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration prevented over 9,000 unsafe products from entering the country between 2006 and 2010, but with a less than 2 percent inspection rate on imported food, countless other unsafe products no doubt entered the U.S. food system, the group warns. According to the report:

  • Two-thirds of apple juice that Americans consume—more than 400 million gallons annually—come from China.
  • By 2007, 90 percent of America’s vitamin C supplements came from China.
  • By 2010, China supplied the United States with 88 million pounds of candy.
  • Around 85 percent of U.S. imports of artificial vanilla along with many vitamins frequently added to food products like folic acid and thiamine come from China.
  • In 2009, more than three-quarters of the tilapia Americans consumed (287.5 million pounds) came from China, an increase of 200,000 percent from 2000 levels.
  • One in 11 canned peaches consumed in the U.S. comes from China; 20 percent of frozen spinach and half the cod consumed in the U.S. come from China.

U.S. food safety oversight of Chinese food processors has not remotely kept pace with the exploding number of imports. In fact, when the melamine-tainted pet food crisis began, it took the FDA nearly a month to even identify its counterpart in China.

Melamine contamination continues to be a problem, with U.S. regulators finding high levels of melamine in a dog food shipment as recently as January 2011. The group also warns of a new milk adulterant being found in Chinese-made processed dairy products: hydrolyzed leather protein, made from scraps of animal skin.

“The FDA prevents thousands of unsafe Chinese products from entering the country every year, but it’s not because of vigilant inspection,” says Hauter. “The agency’s low inspection rate—less than two percent of imported produce, processed food and seafood—virtually guarantees that unsafe Chinese products are making their way into American grocery stores. And while some chemical adulteration in food might not manifest itself as acutely harmful, low levels of contamination can have long-term health risks that haven’t been clearly studied.”

The FDA has even more limited capacity and authority within China. Between 2001 and 2008, it inspected 46 food firms there—less than six a year. “And, to compound this problem, the Agriculture Appropriations bill passed by the House Appropriations Committee on May 31st cuts the FDA funding by more than $280 million compared to FY2011 levels,” says Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro.

Commercial and trade interests deter U.S. leaders from being tough on imported food standards. “As Congress considers funding for food safety and implementation of trade agreements, it is critical that we have a complete understanding of the problem that we face. This report by Food & Water Watch is a valuable part of our understanding and this information should not be overlooked as protecting the public health must be a top priority in our trade agreements,” said Rep. DeLauro.

The explosive growth in China’s food exports to the U.S. is due to China entering the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2000. The WTO limits the ability of member countries to establish health, safety or environmental rules that hamper global commerce.

“The WTO’s structure promotes commerce at the expense of other goals like food safety,” says Hauter. “Congress and the Obama Administration must revisit the current trade agenda and make public health, environmental standards and consumer safety the first priority. Unfortunately, it looks like they will pursue more broken deals with South Korea, Columbia and Panama instead.”

Contact: Darcey Rakestraw, Food & Water Watch, 202-683-2467; drakestraw(at)fwwatch(dot)org

Food & Water Watch works to ensure the food, water and fish we consume is safe, accessible and sustainable. So we can all enjoy and trust in what we eat and drink, we help people take charge of where their food comes from, keep clean, affordable, public tap water flowing freely to our homes, protect the environmental quality of oceans, force government to do its job protecting citizens, and educate about the importance of keeping shared resources under public control.