Tuesday, March 23, 2010

On the List: From China With Love

Hi all, I'm back...sorry for the delay in updating the blog.  My son has cerebral palsy, and he has been undergoing some fairly intense therapy. Managing that has consumed every moment of my free time for the past 3 months.  During that time, winter has turned to spring and the signs are everywhere. Flower buds, crocuses, lamb in the markets, artichokes, strawberries for less than $10/box of oldy, moldy berries...all good things that remind me of the equinox and all its wonder.

One thing that comes with spring is the new growing season.  And while I will be blogging about all the good things that come with this, it also reminds of me of some less than wonderful trends that have emerged over the past decades.  Specifically, I would like to discuss the advent of Chinese agricultural exports, and what it means to those who eat them.  Let me preface this with the fact that I am not some lunatic fringe, shut down trade agreements, I hate those lying commies gal.  To the contrary, I tend to swing toward classic, liberal economics.  Moreover, I admire China and its people, and predict great things for them.  But I do advocate a more pragmatic and cautious approach when it comes to their agricultural exports, both raw and processed.

There are the more obvious gaps, such as the great infant formula horror of 2008, when it was revealed that regular practice included lacing baby food with melamine, an additive used to make plastics and other industrial products.  No doubt you are also familiar with the fact that the same additive was found in Chinese cat and dog food exports a year earlier, resulting in many animals dying from renal failure.  The third time is a charm in 2010, when milk was pulled off shelves in China containing...melamine.  Get the picture?

There is a distinct and troubling pattern of repeating past mistakes and inability/refusal to undertake true quality control of food products. Now consider that China has become an agricultural world leader over the past 2 decades; more and more produce grown in and exported from China is landing in US supermarkets, often as the sole purchasing option. There are legitimate fair trade concerns, environmental problems, as well as quality assurance and health issues at stake.  As the Washington Post recently reported:
The FDA, responsible for inspecting some types of food from 130 countries, last year was deluged with 21 million shipments of food imports, among them 199,000 from China worth about $2.3 billion. FDA inspectors refused 298 food shipments from China in the first four months of this year: They included catfish laden with banned antibiotics, mushrooms laced with illegal pesticides, and others. The rejection rate for Chinese goods is about 25 times that for Canadian goods.
While not definitive, following are some key products that I have been following:
  • Garlic: Gilroy is in trouble.  China increased its exports to the US 35% between 2004 and 2008.  It's a $48 million dollar business. (Source: UN Comtrade).  It is the US's largest fresh vegetable import from China, and let's not forget that it is often dried and then used in garlic powder and other spices, as well as pastes.  Some additional health concerns include reports of growing garlic in sewage, using chlorine to treat the garlic, and excessive spraying.
  • Eggplant: China is the top global producer of eggplant, one of the most highly sprayed vegetables when produced commercially. There is also a lot of controversy about a new GMO version which actually produces its own insecticides.   
  • Pine nuts: On the web, there are periodic complaints about eating pine nuts resulting in a metallic, bitter after taste that lasts for weeks.  This only seems to occur with pine nuts grown in China. 
  • Fish and shellfish: China has a huge aquaculture infrastructure; their seafood comes from ponds, and is fraught controvery.  Let's see, again reports of it being raised in untreated sewage, use of illegal antibiotics, carcinogens, mercury, DDT,...the list goes on.  The water pollution problems in China are significant. The most common seafood exports (my perspective) from China include catfish, eel, shrimp, carp, crab, and salmon. 
  • Soy: Wow, their soy beans are literally toxic, and they are everywhere you don't expect them.  All products, whole and processed.  This means soy milk, infant formula, nutrition bars, supplements, etc. Read the Cornucopia Report.
This problem is compounded with the fact that you will never see a "Made in China" label on agricultural products.  So what to do?  Well, always try to buy locally and seasonally is an obvious solution, but one that does not necessarily fit into everyone's personal philosophy and/or budget. More practical advice is to ask, ask, ask your produce manager about what you are purchasing.  Most of them are pretty smart and have lots of information to share.  If they tell you your produce is from China, buyer beware.  Worse, if they give you a blank stare or flip answer, think twice about your purchases or even shopping there anymore.  

Next, beware of processed foods. Chinese agricultural products sure are cheap.  And abundant.  When you buy that frozen dinner, pre-prepared meal, or even order at a restaurant, assume that any of the above are fair game as ingredients. Again, ask, ask, ask.  

Finally, there are some items that you will likely not need to worry about, as China actually imports these items to supplement their own crops (despite policies that clearly have prioritized domestic production of these crops).  You can be less concerned about wheat and rice. Chinese meat exports are prohibited in the US, but there are all kinds of weird arrangements regarding Chinese chicken imports (we grow it in the US, ship it to China for processing, and they send it back). For the politically minded, soybeans are a top US export to China, which gives us ongoing leverage not only from a trade perspective, but also from a security POV. Why do they need soy? To feed their fish, cows, pigs, chickens, and other animals...these are not grass fed, pasture raised creatures.  But I do wonder if there is ever a soy shortage, will melamine will creep into their animals' diets?

Additional links


  1. Oh great, something else to worry about. :) Any tips where in Hoboken to get produce?

  2. @Laura: The thing to do is to find a place with people who seem knowledgeable about what they sell. Best bets in Hoboken in this regard include Sobseys and Garden of Eden. And of course, the forthcoming USH CSA and farmer markets are a sure bet :)