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Made in China?
 

Just a few decades ago, the words “Made in China” were often interpreted to mean a product was of lesser quality and that shoppers would pay less for it as a result. Consumers took pride in buying goods they knew were made in the U.S., often supporting both the national and local economy and jobs. In today’s global economy, though, the “Made in China” label has become ubiquitous and, often, is not accompanied by a discounted price tag. This label is attached to everything from toys, appliances and clothing to electronics, cosmetics, pet food and, sometimes, even food for human consumption. But, when it comes to food, too often no label of origin appears at all.

Little more than one year ago, the biggest food concern in the minds of many Americans was whether or not it was safe to eat spinach and salad greens from California following a bout of E.coli contamination in some fields. Consumers in this country have seen a fair number of food safety crises erupt in the past several years. We have had incidents of salmonella and lysteria, and, all too often, E.coli contamination in fresh produce and meat products.

In the past year, however, the media has made us aware of contaminated pet food that sickened and even killed many animals; seafood imports have been turned back by Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspectors; toxic toothpaste has been discovered on drug store shelves; recalls have been instituted for dozens of toys made with lead paints and dyes; potentially dangerous tires have been recalled. The common bond all these products share is their country of origin—China. We’ve also come to learn that food imports from China have quadrupled in the past decade and organic foods are becoming a bigger part of that total every day, though how big is hard to gauge.

The numbers

According to an investigation done by the Dallas Morning News and reported last July, 40 percent of all organic farms and processors are based in foreign countries; that figure includes 300 facilities in China. There are now 8.6 million acres of farmland certified as organic in China, compared to 2.2 million acres in the U.S.; 90 percent of those Chinese acres were certified in 2004! Some say this fact should be raising alarms over the quality of certifiers and inspectors in China.

It should be noted that the U.S. receives food imports from all over the world, and probably every country has had problems with a shipment at one time or another. The current focus on China is due in part to the speed with which its agricultural exports have grown, as well as their total quantity of exports. Historically, China has not enjoyed a reputation of governmental or industrial transparency or concern for the health of humans or the environment. This is not to say that every product coming from China is problematic; many farmers and processors do follow organic standards closely, but recent events and findings suggest that, in general, better oversight might be wise.

The USDA tracks the total amount of food imported into this country, but does not keep separate records for organic products. In fact, an article in the May 23, 2007 issue of Business Week quotes National Organic Program spokeswoman Joan Shaffer as responding “Sorry, honey, but we just don’t track that,” when she was asked about the total amount of organic imports. Business Week estimates that about ten percent of all organic food is now imported from China. Companies like Wal-Mart, Kroger’s and others have been dependent on cheap organic imports from China to stock their private label goods. The makers of Silk soymilk contract to purchase Chinese soybeans; both Cascadian Farms and Woodstock Farms source many of their frozen fruits and vegetables from China (as well as from several other countries); dried fruits and berries from China are put into many brands of cereal; 80 percent of the ascorbic acid used in food processing and vitamins comes from China. Almost every company involved in the processing of food or nutritional supplements uses at least some raw materials imported from China. Many of these companies say that the only way they can provide a product at a competitive cost is to buy from China. Others can no longer find a domestic supplier at any cost—ascorbic acid, for example, is now made by only one U.S. producer.

Inspection

In 2006, there were about ten million separate shipments of food off-loaded at various U.S. ports. The FDA is responsible for inspecting those imports and assuring the safety of our food supply. The catch? There are about 650 FDA inspectors scattered around the country. They are responsible for monitoring 60,000 domestic food producers and the imports arriving at 418 ports. On average, they inspect about one percent of all imported foodstuffs each year and do lab testing on less than half a percent. The FDA operates 13 food-testing labs, but due to budget cuts half of them are scheduled to be closed. In April 2007 alone, the FDA detained 257 food products imported from China—twice as many as from any other country. Reasons ranged from contamination by “filth,” to illegal pesticide residues, antibiotic residues, and more. The products included catfish and other seafood, mushrooms, wheat gluten, dried apples and prunes, among others. It is not known whether any of them bore an “organic” label.
Neither the FDA nor the USDA has inspectors in the countries where imported food shipments originate. The USDA accredits only the organic certifying agencies here and in other countries; the certifiers then hire their own inspectors who actually contact the farms to check on compliance with organic standards. However, two auditors from the USDA’s National Organic Program were scheduled to make an inspection tour to China in late August. The plans called for them to make unannounced visits to farms and processing plants as well as review certifiers’ records. The results of the inspection tour had not been announced at the time of this writing. A recent count showed that the USDA has approved a total of 96 organic certifying agencies—56 in the U.S. and 40 in other countries. According to a recent article in The Organic Broadcaster, there are 32 Chinese certification organizations that grant organic certification according to Chinese government standards for products sold in that country. Some of these certifiers at times work with NOP-accredited agencies as well and that could allow them access to U.S. markets.

Increasing exports

For decades, China faced major problems in feeding its own people due to water shortages, ongoing desertification, soil contamination and a burgeoning population. Now China is on the way to becoming the biggest exporter of food in the world. According to Business Week, in the first quarter of 2007 fresh fruit imports from China were up 279 percent to $7.4 million; imports of fresh vegetables from China increased 66 percent to $32 million; and vegetable juices went up 98 percent to $109 million. In 2000 we imported about one million pounds of fresh garlic from China, or less than one percent of U.S, garlic imports. By 2005 the amount of Chinese garlic imported had exploded to 112 million pounds or 73 percent of total garlic imports. Strawberries are a similar case—in 2000 we imported 1.5 million pounds of strawberries from China, now that figure has jumped to 33 million pounds. China exported a total of $2.3 billion in agricultural goods to the U.S. in 2006 according to the USDA Economic Research Service. China’s next major goal is to export cooked chicken products to the U.S. According to the USDA, this proposal is still in the early stages with many hurdles, including public comment periods, to be crossed.

There are an estimated three million apple growers in China; they grow almost half the world’s supply of apples and produced about half the apple juice sold in this country last year. One of the biggest problems facing U.S. apple growers is the wage disparity between domestic apples and Chinese apples. In 2005, domestic growers paid apple pickers between $9 and $14 dollars per hour, depending on their location; in China, pickers earn an average of 28 cents per hour. One possible solution being researched is the use of technology to create new machines to pick apples—reducing labor costs for U.S. growers by reducing the number of workers employed in the industry.

A range of ethical issues

For many people who feel that organic standards should embody a range of ethical issues, there are other concerns surrounding Chinese food imports. China had no formal national organic regulations until April 2005 and local rules varied widely. Prior to that time, China was, and still is, the largest user of pesticides in the world, consuming approximately 300,000 tons of chemicals in 2005; hundreds of thousands of Chinese are thought to suffer pesticide poisoning, often fatal, each year. Experts and consumers alike question whether food from China can ever truly be considered organic due to very high levels of chemical contamination in both soil and water there.

National or local governments, or large companies, are said to own many of the Chinese farms certified as organic. In addition to working for pennies, the farm workers are given no choice in how a crop is grown or how many hours they must work each week; quotas are still all-important in much of China.

Environmental costs

In addition, many people are concerned with the environmental costs associated with shipping food from other parts of the world, including China. Most experts agree that there is a finite amount of oil to be pumped from the earth and that we are on the decreasing slope of the supply. Does it make sense to continue to ship food, often refrigerated, from one side of the planet to the other, using diesel-fueled ships and high-test jet fuel? Amazingly, a variety of food products are shipped from domestic producers to China for processing and packaging and then returned to the U.S. for retail sale.

As fossil fuel supplies become tighter, oil prices will continue to rise. In addition, the price of corn, which is often used to produce the bio-fuel ethanol, has jumped considerably in the past year. These fuel issues have already begun to impact food prices around the world, with many more companies adding fuel surcharges to their shipping costs. The price of corn-based food products, including many conventional dairy items, has also begun to rise as more corn is diverted to ethanol plants, making less available for food products for people and animals alike.

So what’s a concerned consumer to do?

How do you make food-buying choices you can feel confident about? The best way to feel confident about your food purchases is to buy from a producer you know and trust. When you choose vegetables and fruits from our Produce department, you will find the country of origin displayed on the sign. Throughout the year, the Produce staff works hard to bring in as much locally grown produce as possible; when that is not possible, they will go farther afield, but Produce Manager Andy Johnston assured me that “...choosing China is never a choice.”

The Co-op’s Purchasing Manager (and former Grocery Manager) Dean Kallas also encourages customers to choose local producers as often as possible when selecting grocery items. “We make sure that the food being sold here is produced by reputable companies and, when we have the option, we pursue sourcing from local companies. The labor practices of these manufacturers and quality of their products are very important to me. Given the recent amount of recalls on food, both the sourcing of products and the production practices of the manufacturers are clearly relevant.”

Laura Burnham, the Co-op’s Bulk department buyer, has been working to track down the origins of the products she brings in. At this time, only a few items in the aisle are coming from China. Laura has identified them as being pumpkin and sunflower seeds, pine nuts, and buckwheat groats, and occasionally, the black beans and dried apple rings. She is working on a labeling plan for the bulk bins and in the meantime is happy to answer any questions about the origins of products in the Bulk aisle.

Country of origin labeling

One of the biggest changes we could all help implement is Country of Origin Labeling (COOL). As I write, Congress is still working on the 2007 Farm Bill and it is expected that COOL will, once again, have a place in it. COOL was part of the 2002 Farm Bill and basically called for origination labels on meat, seafood, nuts and fresh or frozen produce that would be visible to consumers; some types of food have been required to have their cargo containers labeled since the 1930s. After much lobbying by the food industry, Congress postponed implementation of mandatory labeling—twice. Only seafood is currently required to bear origination labels. Meat labeling is now scheduled to become mandatory in September 2008. Call or email your Congressional representatives to encourage support for COOL. If implementation of COOL makes it into the 2007 Farm Bill, contact the White House and urge President Bush to approve it.

Read the labels

In the meantime, take a moment to read existing labels when you are shopping—some companies already label the origin of their single-ingredient products. You can see this on packages here at the Co-op: Eden Foods, for example, is very transparent about where their products come from. Almost everything they sell is grown in North America and much of it comes from the Midwest. Eden Foods’ Tonya Martin told me that the only products they import from China at this time are their organic pumpkin seeds. She assured me that Eden’s purchasing director makes annual visits to every grower, farm and facility involved in the process and he has complete confidence in their organic pumpkin seeds. Only one plant is used to process the seeds, which includes shelling, cleaning, bulk packaging and shipping. The same procedure holds true for the quinoa they source from Ecuador and the Japanese products they import.

Frozen fruits and vegetables from SnoPac are also normally sourced in North America. One exception was a production run of strawberries earlier this year before domestic berries were ready for harvest, according to a member of their customer service staff. Additionally, SnoPac does not use ascorbic acid, imported or domestic, in their products.

Bionaturae sources the ingredients for its products in Italy and production is based there also. The same caveats regarding international food shipping would apply here that were discussed earlier, though.

You will find products throughout the Co-op that clearly state their origins from China, as well as other nations. Manufacturers like Reese, Roland’s, Crown Prince and many others are well labeled.

Buy local

Local food producers are excellent sources of high-quality food. Simple Soyman purchases Wisconsin-grown organic soybeans for its tofu and tempeh production. Nature’s Bakery strives to procure materials from nearby sources—they use regionally grown whole grain flour milled in Minnesota, and honey, eggs, maple syrup and even packaging materials produced in Wisconsin. Sugar River Dairy and Cedar Grove Cheese provide us with yogurt and cheese from local cows. Organic Valley makes soymilk from soybeans grown in Iowa and produces a wide variety of dairy products made with milk from regional farms.

Don’t forget all the seasonal, locally grown fruits and vegetables that rotate through our Produce department. Andy and his staff will always bring in as much delicious, local produce as they can.

Health and Wellness

There are many reputable supplement companies that supply us, too. Our house label supplements are produced by Vitamer Labs in Arizona. They have received top certifications for Good Manufacturing Practices from the Natural Products Association. This means they start quality control procedures at the raw material’s source, no matter where in the world that may be. Their ingredients undergo testing for every batch produced and they also employ third party testing. According to Jane Drinkwalter, Vice President of Sales for Vitamer, 50 to 80 percent of supplement ingredients industry-wide come from China. She assured us that

“...we have extremely stringent checks in place that monitor and verify the supplier’s quality before we order from them, when the ingredient is received by us and in the final production before the product can be released. Incoming raw materials are quarantined and identified before they are put into production. We will reject any ingredients that do not meet our strict standards.”

Nearly all the ingredients in the tinctures from Eclectic Institute are grown in the U.S.; Enzymatic Therapy is located in Green Bay and they also employ Good Manufacturing Practices; Natural Factors is a Canadian-based company and subject to national standards that are tougher than those in the U.S. New Chapter offers organic supplements that are certified to the standards of the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM) and the European Organic Standard (EEC 2092/91). These are just a few of the supplement manufacturers we rely on—you can rely on our Health and Wellness team to continue to choose products from companies they know and trust.

Health and Wellness Manager Lisa Stag-Tout has been keeping an eye on this issue as it relates to her department and had this comment:

“Guaranteeing the quality of supplements is a very complex issue. I think that in the next 12 to 18 months we’ll see the industry create improved systems for quality control. For instance, just this month the Natural Products Association launched a new verification program that will allow U.S. manufacturers to be able to check a database of test results from participating suppliers in order to be better informed when making contractual decisions. This is certainly a vast improvement over relying on China to provide test results. To read more about this go to: www.naturalproductsassoc.org/site/PageNavigator/abt_China_purity.”

Housewares

We are often asked about products in our Housewares department that bear the “Made in China” label. Most of these goods come from two companies—Down to Earth Distributors is headquartered in Eugene, Oregon, and Bali and Soul can be found just a few blocks away on Brearly Street. Down to Earth has long had a policy of being well acquainted with its suppliers around the world. They are concerned about the sustainability and durability of the products they sell as well as knowing the working conditions under which they are manufactured. Bali and Soul is a family business with some family members here selling products and other family members and friends in Indonesia creating the designs and finished goods.

Wynston Estis has long been our Assistant Store Manager for Products and is now the Store Manager of our upcoming Downtown location. She has been checking on product sources for quite awhile and said, “While it is clear that the standards of food safety and work place ethics are not where we’d like them to be, they will never improve if we don’t work with Chinese sources to reach that goal. Down to Earth is a leader in developing relationships with healthy, sustainable and humane sources across Asia and other parts of the world to support the growth of businesses that create better options for the people in those communities. Bali and Soul is another vendor that is committed to fostering access to the marketplace for alternative businesses and craftspeople from developing nations in Asia.”

Use your consumer voice

Don’t underestimate the value of your consumer voice or the power of your money! Ask manufacturers whose products you like to label the source of their ingredients, then shop to reward the companies that do this. Companies that sell single-ingredient products are the most likely to be willing and able to share this information—the more ingredients a product contains the harder it will be to verify their sources. Manufacturers depend on retail sales to survive and if they hear often enough about consumer dissatisfaction, they tend to respond with changes, so call or email their customer service departments with your concerns. Most companies provide contact information on every product label. Be aware that many companies who are not using available domestic ingredients are making that choice based on profits—if we as consumers want to buy food produced in the U.S., we must be willing to pay a fair price for it.

There are likely to be continuing growing pains with foods imported from China. Their government officials are pledging stricter controls and our government will probably be keeping a closer watch, at least for the near future. Here at your Co-op, we will do our best to stay informed and continue to bring you the best quality food available.

As this article was heading to press in mid-October, there were signs of movement in Washington, DC surrounding the issues of imported food safety. Congress and the Bush administration have apparently agreed that a new system of safety certification has to be created and put in place. According to the Los Angeles Times, they are considering screening that would require U.S. companies to provide certification that their foreign suppliers are meeting U.S. standards. More FDA inspections would also be a part of the plan. The means of funding the new plan is already a point of disagreement, however. The Grocery Manufacturers/Food Products Association also recently suggested new safety proposals including certifying that imports are in compliance with FDA guidelines; importers with high standards that voluntarily undergo extra testing would receive faster processing at our ports; global safety standards would be established; the FDA budget would be increased to allow for more inspections and problem suppliers could be targeted.