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.
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 from China where environmental, food safety and labor laws are weaker and regulatory oversight is lax.
The shortcomings in China’s food safety system were 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.
Melamine-tainted milk products sickened hundreds of thousands of infants in China, and melamine contamination is believed to be responsible for thousands of pet deaths in the United States. And while this chemical has garnered the most headlines, systemic food safety failures in China have allowed countless unsafe products onto global grocery store shelves. Nonetheless, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is considering allowing U.S. food retailers to import chicken from China. It is time for a common-sense approach to inspecting imported food and preventing the globalization of the food supply from sickening our citizens.
A common-sense approach includes:
- Revisiting current trade agendas to make public health, environmental standards and consumer safety top priorities;
- Removing agriculture from the power of the WTO;
- Restarting the assessment of China’s poultry inspection system;
- Increasing FDA and USDA funding in order to increase the number and quality of food import inspections from China and other countries;
- Closing the loopholes in the current country-of-origin labeling rules on meats, seafood, fruits and vegetables, and expanding labeling requirements to cover processed food.