Thursday, May 30, 2013


America and China are two countries which have a love-hate relationship since both are global rivals trying to establish unchallenged economic superiority. Though America enjoyed a near monopoly as a super power ever since the fall of the mighty Soviet Union, China with its Communist dictatorship registered dramatic growth during the last one and a half decade and according to economic experts America cannot afford to antagonize this nation because of its close economic dependence on Chinese investments in the US and over dependence of America on cheap Chinese imports. While cheap and low quality consumer products may not pose serious dangers to the citizens, when it comes to food safety, one can never compromise and it is here that Americans are becoming increasingly vulnerable to food poisoning from food products imported from China which are not subject to regular and thorough checking at various ports of entry. Here is a critical commentary on the current practices vis-a-vis the safety risks Americans face due to this situation.      

Chinese imports dominate some food categories to a striking extent. In a testimony before a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in May (pdf), food safety expert Patty Lovera noted that China accounted for 80% of tilapia, 51% of cod, 49% of apple juice, 34% of processed mushrooms, 27% of garlic and 16% of frozen spinach consumed in the U.S. in 2011. Reports on the state of Chinese food processing establishments are discouraging. More than half of food processing and packaging firms on the Chinese mainland failed safety inspections in 2011, according to a report by Asia Inspection, a China-based food quality control company. Meanwhile, in the U. S., inspections of imported food products are minute compared to the total volume of imports. According to a recent study by the Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee in 2011, FDA inspections were a mere 2.3 % of the total of all imported food products (pdf). The same study states that food imports generally have risen 10% annually since 2004, and are continuing to rise (imports grew from $399 million in 2011 to $426 million in 2012). The FDA estimates that food imports from China and India will grow by 9% annually between 2010 and 2020. The flow of reports in recent years from domestic and foreign sources alike about serious violations of food safety in China has been continuous and alarming. In the last year alone, the country has seen thousands of dead pigs show up in a major river, faced multiple milk scandals and busted operations that were passing off rat meat as mutton. In addition, as Patty Lovera told Congress, there is "widespread smuggling of products like honey to avoid tariffs and food safety restrictions [and] mislabeled products 'transshipped' through another country but produced in China." Food safety problems are, of course, not only a concern to the U.S. The German magazine Der Spiegel recently posted online a list of "rejected food" imported into the EU from China during 2012, including insect-infested potatoes, rabbit meat loaded with antibiotics, oyster sauce with staphylococcus, salmonella-infected ginger, pumpkin seeds contaminated with glass chips and arsenic in frozen calamari. American history of the late 19th and early 20th century reminds us that periods of rapid economic growth stimulate fraud and deception in food processing, which leads to increased regulation. As I noted in an earlier column, it wasn't until author Upton Sinclair aroused public concern with "The Jungle," his 1906 book on conditions in the Chicago meat packaging industry, that President Theodore Roosevelt moved to create the FDA.

China is not a saint when it comes to food safety assurance, even for its own citizens. This country was rocked by many food related frauds during the last one decade affecting children and adults alike and fraudulent practices are still being perpetuated by a section of the food industry which are being splashed across the news channels of electronic media across the globe! Whether this is happening in spite of the government or because of the government is not quite clear. The advantage China has in meting out justice is apparent when it is realized that the governing system is dictatorial in nature and unlike democracies, deciding about the guilty and according severe punishment can be swift. Still food safety scandals are tumbling out of the cup board in that country with a sickening regularity. America which prides itself the best governed country in the world, seems to be lowering its guard against China for reasons which are not very clear. If economic considerations are handicapping that country in taking the Chinese food safety problem seriously, one can only wish that the lives of innocent American citizens are not sacrificed at the altar of extraneous considerations.      


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