(New York Times News Service) — If you dined on tilapia recently, chances are it came from China. And that artificial vanilla you just used to make cookies? It, too, may have made the same long journey to your kitchen in the United States.
A growing amount of food commonly consumed by Americans — ranging from canned tuna and mandarin oranges to fresh mushrooms and apple juice — is now being imported from China. By the end of last year, the United States imported 4.1 billion pounds of food products from China, according to the Agriculture Department.
American imports of Chinese food products gained more attention on Wednesday, when Smithfield Foods, one of the biggest and oldest pork producers in the United States, agreed to sell itself to Shuanghui International, one of China’s largest meat processors.
The $4.7 billion deal amounts to the largest takeover to date of an American company by a Chinese one. Although Smithfield emphasized that the deal was intended to deliver more pork to China, not the reverse, it nonetheless prompted concern about China’s expanding role in the American food supply and the implications that might have for food safety in the United States.
“We are importing more and more food from China at the same time we are hearing more and more about food scandals involving Chinese companies,” said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch who testified in Congress at a hearing on Chinese food imports. Food safety problems, like melamine deliberately put into pet foods and baby formula as well as unsafe levels of cadmium in rice, have plagued China. The latest episode involved fox, rat and mink meat that was doctored with gelatin, pigment and nitrates and sold as mutton.
“We should definitely give the Chinese an award for creativity in adulterating foods,” said Jeff Nelken, a food safety expert. “They are a great resource for counterfeited foods, like honey products that don’t seem to have any pollen in them.”
A 2009 study by the Agriculture Department concluded that while Chinese officials were working to improve food safety and the regulation of food production — requiring the small number of food exporters there to gain certification — imports from China were still problematic. “Monitoring the wide range of products and hazards that can arise at various points in the export chain is a challenge for Chinese and U.S. officials,” the report stated.
The United States government has continued to have concerns about Chinese food exports, with a congressional hearing this month that was billed as “The Threat of China’s Unsafe Consumables” as the latest example.
“The health and safety, not only of the United States and Europe but that of people around the world, has come to be dependent on the quality of goods imported from China,” Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican who heads the House Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats, said in opening the hearing. “Yet the task of inspecting and testing Chinese goods is beyond the ability of governments, considering the magnitude of that challenge.”
Imported foods sold in groceries and other food stores must be labeled with their country of origin, but a substantial portion of imports end up in restaurant and food service meals, where consumers have no idea of their source.
Additionally, once imported foods are processed in any way, such labeling is no longer required under government regulations.
Thus, frozen imported peas and carrots would require a label if packaged separately, but mixed together and sold in a single package, they do not need labeling, Lovera said. Fish fillets must carry labeling, but imported fish sticks or crab patties do not.
Many of the scandals over Chinese food stuffs imported to the United States have involved products that fall under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for monitoring seafood and fruits and vegetables coming into the country.
Americans have long been eating foods imported from China, the world’s largest agricultural economy and one of the biggest exporters of agricultural products. China shipped 4.1 billion pounds of food to the United States last year, according to the Agriculture Department, including almost half of the apple juice, 80 percent of the tilapia and more than 10 percent of the frozen spinach eaten.
China is also a big source of ingredients used in food, like xylitol, a candy sweetener; artificial vanilla, soy sauce and folic acid.
China is not, however, allowed to export fresh pork or beef to the United States because it still has outbreaks of hoof and mouth disease.
The Smithfield announcement reminded many people of video footage this spring that showed thousands of pig carcasses floating down a river that supplies drinking water to Shanghai. The source of the floating pigs remains a mystery, but they were hailed as a sign that a Chinese government crackdown on people selling dead and diseased pigs for pork was working.
In 2011, Shuanghui itself got caught up in that enforcement effort, after Chinese officials found it selling pork laced with clenbuterol, a veterinary medicine banned for use in animals intended for human consumption.
Smithfield and Shuanghui on Wednesday emphasized that the deal aimed to increase the supply of high quality, safe pork to China.
James Roth, director of the Center for Food Security and Public Health at Iowa State University, said he had no concerns about food safety arising out of the deal because any pork processed in the United States would have to go through the Agriculture Department’s inspection systems. “They’re doing this to enhance exports to China because they need safe meat for their population, not to bring Chinese pork to the United States,” Roth said.
Processed pork products like smoked hams, sausages and bacon could conceivably be imported from China, but only if they met standards set by the World Organization for Animal Health, which require cooking at high heats for a specific amount of time, he said.
China has been pressing for permission to export poultry, which does not contract hoof and mouth disease, to the United States for some time.
Neal Keppy, a farmer in Iowa who raises hogs from about three weeks of age until they are slaughtered, said he was confident that Smithfield under Chinese ownership would continue to produce high quality, safe pork products.
“What I think is more concerning is if China owns Smithfield, who knows if that pork will stay in this country if the food supply gets tight?” Keppy said. “In that case, a lot of pork will head for China instead of feeding U.S. mouths.”
He said he hoped regulators would keep that in mind as they reviewed the deal.