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Food for thought amidst the COVID-19 pandemic

April 24, 2020

COVID-19 has caused an upheaval in the American way of life to a level we haven’t witnessed since World War II. Much like it was then, Americans are readjusting to a new normal, only this norm involves implementing elaborate strategies just to take a trip to the grocery store. 

This viral-inspired fear has changed the way we look at what we eat and where it comes from, with a renewed interest in becoming self-sustainable by creating backyard gardens and planning other homesteading projects. After taking a closer look at the origin of the foods you buy on a regular basis, coronavirus or not, this locally grown movement might be a healthier choice for more reasons than just self-sustainment. 

Scientists say this strain of coronavirus originated in China, so it seems it shares the “Made in China” label familiar to many consumer goods we use daily. But more comes from this country in Asia than just plastic dollar store trinkets and rogue viruses. 

According to The Office of the United States Trade Representative, China is also the third-largest importer of agricultural products to the United States, coming in behind Mexico and Canada, with imports of food and related products from this foreign country totaling $4.9 billion in 2018. What exactly are we eating that’s made in china, and is it a health concern?

According to Food and Water Watch, a non-profit food advocacy organization based in Washington, DC, 70% of the apple juice, 43% of the processed mushrooms, 22% of the frozen spinach, and 78% of the tilapia sold in America’s grocery stores come from China. Garlic was also high on the list, along with canned peaches, fresh and frozen fish, shrimp, green peas, dried onions and processed broccoli.

The Food and Water Watch group’s list of Chinese food imports seems to parallel data from The Office of the United States Trade Representative, an Executive Office of the President. According to their records, $1.2 billion in processed fruit and vegetables, $393 million in fruit and vegetable juices, $222 million in snack foods, $167 million in spices, and $160 million in fresh vegetables are imported from China per year. Although the United States has agricultural and goods trade agreements with more than 75 countries in addition to China, what would be the concern with food imports from this particular region? 

According to several sources, the main issues with Chinese imports is safety and quality. In a 2008 Report for Congress compiled by the Congressional Research Service, researchers uncovered several incidents regarding food imported from China. In early 2007, evidence had emerged that contaminated pet food ingredients from China had caused the deaths of many dogs and cats, and later that year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) detained all imports of farm-raised seafood from China like shrimp, catfish, basa, dace, and eel, until the shippers of these products could confirm that they were free of unapproved drug residues. 

In September 2008, U.S. authorities broadened their testing of imported milk-derived products following reports that melamine-contaminated baby formula had sickened thousands of Chinese children. They also recalled some coffee products that reportedly contained this compound. In 2019, dumplings made by Chinese frozen food producer Sanquan Food Co Ltd were recalled after some packages tested positive for African Swine Fever.

Although all food products imported into the United States must meet the same safety standards as domestically produced foods, international trade rules allow a foreign country to apply its own regulatory systems to meet those standards, under an internationally recognized concept known as “equivalence.” The FDA makes an equivalence determination after conducting an in-depth scientific and regulatory analysis of the foreign country’s food processing system.

An Economic Information Bulletin created in 2009 by the USDA Economic Research Service addressed the challenges of monitoring food products from China, suggesting that “China’s weak enforcement of food safety standards, its heavy use of agricultural chemicals, and its considerable environmental pollution has led to FDA refusals of food shipments from China because of ‘filth,’ unsafe additives, labeling, and veterinary drug residues in fish and shellfish.”

One of the most concerning imports, and most debated, has been poultry. The poultry trade between the United States and China has been an on-again/off-again relationship for years. In a nutshell, at the request of Chinese food authorities to reexamine the stalled poultry trade between the nations, Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) experts traveled to China to reinspect poultry facilities in 2004, 2005, 2010, and again in 2013, still finding discrepancies noted in previous inspections, which included “systemic inadequacies in both the (Chinese) slaughter and processed poultry inspection systems.” It wasn’t until 2015 that the inspection qualifications were met. As a result, the FSIS published a proposal in 2017 to remove certain limitations on Chinese poultry exports to the United States.

This proposal surrounding the chicken conundrum was finalized in the Federal Register by the FDA on Nov. 8, 2019. The ruling amends previous Federal poultry products inspection regulations and firmly establishes the eligibility of China to raise, slaughter, and then export processed poultry to the United States.

The November ruling also makes it clear that Chinese imported processed poultry is not to be used in school lunch programs, school breakfast programs, and the Child and Adult Care Food Program. This school directive is probably a good thing, but it poses another question the American public should ponder. If chicken products from China are not appropriate for school children and government programs, then why would they be acceptable for the general public?

With the questionable safety track record and ongoing troubles surrounding Chinese goods, and the fact that they are our third-largest foreign supplier of many of the food products we consume every day, perhaps shifting back to locally grown food should become more than just a trend, it should become our new way of life.

Kimberly Drake can be reached at [email protected]

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