Making a mad dash through Whole Foods Market, buying ingredients for a holiday dinner, I didn't bother to read labels. It wasn't until later, about to shake some "365" brand garlic powder into a pot, that I took a closer look at the jar and saw these words: "Product of China." My first instinct was to return the garlic powder, but then I wondered -- was I overreacting?
Consumers have been understandably alarmed in recent years after scandals in China involving dangerous chemicals in milk, frozen fish and pet food, as well as widespread pollution and farmland contaminated with heavy metals.
Bloomberg News put it bluntly: "For more than a decade, China has earned a reputation as one of the world's worst food-safety offenders."
Serious violations also were discussed in a Wall Street Journal article titled, "Why Americans Should Worry About China's Food Safety Problems." Calling the incidents "continuous and alarming," the article noted that in the last year alone, thousands of dead pigs were discovered in a major river, new milk scandals emerged and food vendors passed off rat meat as mutton. The WSJ also pointed out that Chinese food imports to the United States continue to rise, while inspections can't keep up, putting consumers at risk.
A Whole Foods representative told us in an email: "Out of our 2,000-plus private label [365 brand] products, we currently offer about a dozen foods that are sourced in China: Many are spices, both organic and conventional, like ginger, garlic, cayenne pepper, cinnamon, and crushed red chili peppers. Others are frozen foods: edamame, breaded calamari, and a tropical fruit blend. Rounding out the list is black rice and canned mandarin oranges."
We asked how Whole Foods ensures the safety of its products from China. The answer: "We have always had great confidence in our vendor partners in China, and we have taken great steps to verify that those suppliers have the same level of integrity and commitment to quality as the rest of our partners across the world.
"We use international, third-party auditors, and in most cases, our own employees visit the production sites in person."
About 15 percent of the U.S. food supply is imported from other countries, with the Food and Drug Administration inspecting only about 1 to 2 percent of the items. Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) regulations have lots of loopholes, so consumers often have no way of knowing where their food comes from. For instance, if a food is processed, the origins of the ingredients don't have to be identified, (And the definition of "processed" is loose, including, among other things, any item cooked, roasted, cured or combined with another ingredient.)
An example: The label on Trader Joe's spice mixture called "21 Seasoning Salute" says it is distributed and sold exclusively by TJ's in Monrovia. But there's not a word about where the 21 seasonings come from.
We sent Trader Joe's questions about the company's policy on food from China but didn't receive any information. Back in 2008, as reported in USA Today, the company phased out "single-ingredient Chinese imports such as garlic, frozen organic spinach, ginger and edamame, a green soybean. ... The ban doesn't include products with ingredients from China, a leading source of vitamins and minerals used in many processed foods." (It's fair to wonder what countries provide the extra vitamins and minerals added to so many enriched breads and cereals. You're not likely to find answers on the packaging.)
Although it has a terrible track record, China doesn't have a monopoly on food-safety catastrophes. This past year there were scares around the globe and within the United States, such as: U.S. chicken with salmonella; U.S. deli salads with listeria; U.S. ground beef with E. coli; Mexican cucumbers with salmonella; and pomegranate seeds from Turkey causing a hepatitis A outbreak.
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As The New York Times reported, one in six Americans becomes ill each year from eating contaminated foods, resulting in 130,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.
Clearly, crucial links in the food-safety chain -- both here and abroad -- are broken.
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