It adorns many items that you may consider purchasing every day — the small “Made in China” stamp that makes it clear where that item originated. Unfortunately, when it comes to food, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to know if a part of your meal came from China or another area of the world.
The home of the longest manmade structure in the world, China is also the world’s leading producer of many popular American foods — apples, tomatoes, potatoes, pears, garlic, peaches, and many more. In fact, China produces almost 80 percent of the world’s vitamin C, and produces many ingredients used in processed food.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the United States imported $4.1 billion worth of agricultural products from China in 2006. A decade earlier, that number was only $800 million.
The amount of food brought in is already high, and continues to rise.
Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch, gave testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee last month that in 2011 the U.S. saw 80 percent of its tilapia, 51 percent of cod, 49 percent of apple juice, 34 percent of processed mushrooms, and 27 percent of garlic consumed in the U.S. came from China.
The good news — between 2006 and 2010, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration prevented more than 9,000 unsafe products from entering the United States.
The much worse news — only about 2 percent of imported food sees inspection, meaning that many foods that would not pass scrutiny have made it into our grocery stores and our dining rooms.
“The few FDA inspectors in China were overwhelmed by the sheer size of the nation’s food production, including an estimated one million food-processing companies,” Lovera said in her testimony.
According to Lovera, poor working conditions and excess pollution are two major problems with Chinese food production. To maximize profits, safety steps are being skipped, leading to unhealthy products.
Other incidents include contamination of foods. Lovera testified that melamine, a chemical used to make plastic, has been intentionally added to food products to help them pass tests for protein levels.
What can be done to avoid buying Chinese canned or frozen food? Frustratingly little.
While federal labeling requirements ensure that the country of origin is applied to beef, pork, lamb, chicken, and fruits and vegetables — there is a loop hole. Processed products do not require labels, and a vague definition of processed food allows many items to be exempt from this requirement.
Furthermore, even if the product you are buying does not say that it was made in China, there is no way to know if ingredients came from China prior to being assembled in the U.S.
Avoiding food products from China can be done if you skip out on the processed foods all together — buying fresh fruit and vegetables are not only healthier for you, but will also allow you shop locally.