Read That Label
For years, the only labels I read were those on designer clothing--which I realize is incredibly shallow, but it's true. That changed last week when I saw in the New York Times that Smithfield Foods, one of the largest and oldest pork producers in the United States had agreed to sell its business to Shuanghui International, one of China's largest meat processors, for 4.7 billion dollars--a sale that has raised concerns about China's expanding role in American food supply and the implications for food safety.
How Many Rats Does It Take To Make A Sheep?
Which brings me to labels. Most of you probably wheel your grocery carts through the supermarket and toss in whatever you want: strawberries, rice, honey, tilapia. It probably doesn't occur to you to read the labels for the country of origin or think about what went into the production of those foods. Well, here is a sobering fact: we now import 4.3 billion pounds of food a year from China. The problem with this is that many Chinese food producers have not been overly concerned about food safety, and a number of scandalous practices have recently come to light. Melamine, which can be toxic, has been deliberately put into pet foods and baby formula. Unsafe levels of cadmium have been added to rice. Most disturbing is the revelation that fox, rat, and mink meat was doctored with gelatin, red pigment, and nitrates, then sold as mutton. There were 63 arrests in this incident, prompting one Chinese tweeter to ask, "How many rats does it take to make a sheep?"
Beware of Fake Honey
Honey is particularly problematic. The U.S. consumes about 400 million pounds of honey a year; but local producers can only supply 150 million pounds. So foreign markets are moving in—especially China. Millions of pounds of Chinese honey are making their way onto U. S. store shelves in one form or another. What’s wrong with Chinese honey? For one thing, it may contain lead, a toxin that accumulates in the body and can cause neurological damage, especially in young children. Thousands of small beekeepers in China use unlined, lead-soldered drums to collect and store honey, which they bottle and sell to U. S. importers. Chinese honey may also contain small amounts of chloramphenicol, an antibiotic used to control a bacterial epidemic that was killing millions of bees. The FDA has banned the use of this substance in food, because even small amounts can be fatal. Another reason to avoid Chinese honey is that it is mixed with sugar water, artificial sweeteners, and other additives. In some instances, producers have eliminated the honey completely and just sell thickened sweeteners which they label as honey. One food safety expert has commented: “…we should give Chinese producers an award for creativity in adulterating foods and selling counterfeit items as the real thing”.
What Is the FDA Doing About Chinese Food Imports?
You might ask why the FDA doesn’t do a better job of monitoring the foods imported from China. The answer is simple. China is the world’s largest agricultural producer, and one of the biggest exporters of agricultural products. Every year, we import more and more food from China. Last year, almost half of the apple juice consumed by Americans came from China—as well as 80 percent of the tilapia and more than ten percent of the frozen spinach. China is also a big source of food additives, like sweeteners for candy, artificial vanilla, and soy sauce. Inspecting all of this imported goods is too big a task for the FDA.
It is true that the labels on imported foods sold in grocery stores must show the country of origin. But here’s the rub. A lot of imported food ends up in restaurants, and consumers have no idea of the source of what they’re eating. Also, once foods are processed in any way, labeling is no longer required. So, while a package of frozen lima beans would have to show its place of origin, if you mix the beans with corn and sell them together, no label is necessary. Likewise, the tilapia you eat has to show where it came from—but processed fish sticks or crab cakes do not.
Both Smithfield and Shuanghui have emphasized that their deal is only intended to increase China’s supply of high quality, safe pork, and most American public health officials are not concerned about food safety connected with the deal. The concern is that if China owns Smithfield, what will happen if the pork supply diminishes, and a lot of pork is sent to Chinese instead of U.S. markets? Another concern is that China will press for permission to export more foods to the United States, raising more questions about safe processing. These are issues to address before the agreement is finalized.
Buying Local, Reading Labels
As for me, I am buying local—to the extent possible. Every Wednesday and Friday until the end of October I will be at the Green City Market, mostly at Mick Klug’s stand, because I’ve toured his farm, and I know exactly how his foods are grown. After that, I will move indoors with the vendors who stay throughout the winter. For everything else, I will read the labels.
Filed under: Living in Interesting Times