Yesterday, someone called me a protectionist. I laughed and said, “Damn right. I’m all about protecting people’s health and safety here in the U.S. and abroad.” The cause of this heated conversation was the release of Food & Water Watch’s report, A Decade of Dangerous Food Imports from China, where we document the increasing amount of poisoned food that comes to our shores from this agricultural powerhouse.
And just to be perfectly clear up front, I am no xenophobe. I’ve been to China several times and have great respect for the people and their amazing civilization. We all know that putting profits above people is a cross-cultural problem. Besides, many of the companies and investors profiting from Chinese exports are U.S. companies or investors. After all, who created this mess in the first place? Year after year, our elected leaders allow trade to trump health and environmental concerns, not to mention common sense.
In China, this has spurred the dangerous practice of selling contaminated and counterfeit food products. It came into focus for U.S. consumers in 2007 when the industrial chemical melamine was found in pet food, causing 17,000 pet illnesses and 4,000 dog and cat deaths. Then it came to light that melamine-tainted milk, exported worldwide in the form of powder, was being used by brands like Mars, Unilever, Heinz, Cadbury, Pizza Hut, and Subway.
Turns out that unscrupulous Chinese dairy producers can dilute milk but make it appear protein rich through the use of industrial chemicals. Recently, another yummy protein boosting ingredient came to light: hydrolyzed leather protein made from scraps of animal skin. This dishonest and dangerous practice continues to be a major concern because cheap powdered milk products from China (and many other developing countries) is ubiquitous in everything from protein bars to baked goods.
Over the past two decades multinational food corporations have begun moving their operations to China and other countries where labor is cheap, food regulations are scant and environmental laws are weak. As a result of so-called “free trade,” China has become the world’s largest agricultural economy and is increasingly feeding the world. Today almost 78% of Tilapia and 50% of cod eaten in the U.S. comes from China.
Even apples have been hijacked. I bet most mothers would be shocked to know they are feeding their child apple juice from China. But today China produces more than 70% of the apple juice consumed in the U.S. and is increasingly providing the fruits and vegetables used for canned and frozen food.
Here are the odds that common everyday products you’re eating are coming from China:
Mushrooms, processed: 2 in 5
Garlic: 1 in 5
Frozen spinach: 1 in 5
Clams: 1 in 8
Salmon 1 in 9
Canned Peaches 1 in 11
Crab: 1 in 10
Canned Pineapples: 1 in 12
But China’s largest role in our diet is disguised in processed foods filled with a myriad of ingredients exported from China. China makes about 85% of imported artificial vanilla as well as many vitamins that are frequently added to food products, like folic acid and thiamine. China is the leading supplier of citric acid, a flavor enhancer and preservative used in soft drinks, cheese, and baked goods. China is also the largest supplier to the U.S. of other ingredients like xylitol, used as a sweetener in candy, and sorbic acid, a preservative.
This is frightening. As one of the world’s largest pesticide producers, China’s agriculture relies on the intensive use of agrochemicals. China’s food supply is polluted with these chemicals along with antibiotics, veterinary medicines and intentional chemical adulteration in processing factories. Poisonous residues in foods usually go undetected. China’s labyrinthine food safety system lacks the capacity, authority and will to ensure the safety of food for Chinese or American consumers.
And don’t think for a minute that the FDA is protecting you from the pesticides and other industrial chemicals. The under-funded and under-staffed FDA has barely attempted to ensure that Chinese food imports are safe to eat. Less than 2% of imported produce, processed food, seafood and manufactured food ingredients are inspected each year. The FDA has even more limited capacity and authority within China. Inspections of food processing plants by the FDA are pitifully infrequent and require the consent of the manufacturer and the Chinese government. Considering that there are more than one million food processing companies, and that within a seven-year period between 2001 and 2008, the FDA inspected only 46 food firms in China, FDA inspection of foreign facilities is a joke.
Meanwhile, as we face the onslaught of contaminated food, U.S. farms are disappearing around the country and rural areas are facing an economic crisis. As we move towards the challenges of “peak oil” and climate change, shouldn’t we make sure that we can feed ourselves?
It’s time for our leaders to stand up and say enough is enough. Congress and the Obama administration, who all like to pontificate about making our country secure, should revisit the current trade agenda and make public health, environmental standards, and consumer safety the highest priorities.