What’s In The Food We Import From China?
In October, 11,000 children in in almost 500 schools and daycare centers across eastern Germany were sickened with diarrhea and vomiting. The norovirus that afflicted them (and sent 30 to the hospital) was traced to a shipment of frozen strawberries from China — from Qufu, a city in China’s southwestern Shandong Province where Confucius was born –†and,†says the German magazine†Der Spiegel, led to many Germans realizing how much of their food is grown in China.
Currently Germany imports only 2 percent of its food from China, worth 1.4 billion euros a year but these figures will likely grow. As Wu Xiuqin, the sales director at an agricultural business called “Success” comments to Der Spiegel, “based on what she’s seen at food conventions in Berlin and elsewhere, no country on Earth can compete with China.” 80 percent of the world’s garlic comes from China, which also exports the most honey. Global suppliers of food — Unilever, Nestle — cannot resist buying from Chinese suppliers, due to the price and the volume.
The U.S.†imports about 20 percent of its food and, like Germany and other European countries, is likely to start importing even more. One reason is that both the U.S. and the European Union have themselves also been exporting more and more products to China. American exports to China (such as soybeans) have grown by 468 percent since 2001 according to the World Trade Organization; the EU exported 393,000 metric tons of pork to China, an increase of 85 percent from the previous year.
“Lax Monitoring” of Imported Food Products
As the norovirus outbreak revealed, consumers in the U.S. and other countries need to be careful about foods imported from countries without our environmental and food safety regulations. A recent Bloomberg investigation highlighted the frankly unsanitary conditions in which produce and fish (who are sometimes fed with feces from geese and pigs) are raised. Bloomberg also underscored that the Food and Drug Administration completely lacks the resources to inspect food imports and leaves the process very much to third-party regulators hired by the food industry.†Der Spiegel describes equally “lax monitoring” of imports of†fresh, frozen or preserved foods by the EU.
Der Spiegel emphasizes that the “biggest problem” food products from China is the fact that they are, indeed, grown in China in the “local production environment, which includes the excessive use of toxic pesticides for crops and of antibiotics for animals, sometimes coupled with a complete lack of scruples.” Some 300,000 infants were sickened, some fatally, from milk powder and baby formula products that contained the chemical melaminem in 2008. EU inspections that have been carried out have found quite an array of less-than-desirable substances in food imports from China: potatoes infested with insects, antibiotic-laced rabbit meat and shrimp, glass chips among pumpkin seeds, oyster sauce containing staphylococcus and pasta with maggots.
Many Chinese Farmers Don’t Eat The Food They Grow
If you’re wondering how anyone in China survives on such food,†Zhou Li, a lecturer at Beijing’s Renmin University who studies food safety, tells Der Spiegel that many farmers don’t eat their own food.
As Li says,
…now that [the farmers] are aware of the harmful effects of pesticides, fertilizers, hormones and antibiotics, they still produce a portion of their farm products for the market and a portion for their own families. The only difference is that the food for their families is produced using traditional methods. In fact, many wealthy Chinese have bought their own farms so as not to be dependent on what’s available in supermarkets. There are also reports of special plots of land used to produce food exclusively for senior government officials.
Wu Heng, a graduate student in history in Shanghai, started a website,†Throw it Out the Window (Zhichuchuangwai), after hearing a story last year about cancer-causing additives added to meat. The site’s name comes from a story about U.S. president Roosevelt defenestrating his breakfast sausage after learning about conditions in Chicago’s slaughterhouses from the 1906 Upton Sinclair novel, “The Jungle.” Wu’s site crashed the first week after he put it up, as it received over 2 million visitors. A review of the database turned up items about chocolate laced with maggots, infant formula containing carcinogens and, in the facilities of a producer of moon cakes, a dead rat floating in an oil-filled container.
The†Bloomberg investigation also turned up plenty of food safety violations among U.S. producers; the†New York Times points out that food safety violations are hardly restricted to China (Italian clams have been found to contain E.coli). But as our food supply is increasingly, seemingly inevitably, globalized, all of these reports underscore the need to ask where your food is from as well as the benefits of locally grown food.
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