Czarnezki, Field: Are food imports from China safe?

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Jason Czarnezki of Montpelier, faculty director of the U.S.-China Partnership for Environmental Law at Vermont Law School, and Cameron Field, a student in the school’s Environmental Law and Policy master’s degree program.

Chinese food restaurants in the United States outnumber all McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC franchises combined. But within the last decade, the U.S. has seen big growth in another gastronomical contribution from China—imported food. This trend is less noticeable to American consumers but has greater safety implications.

Despite the growing interest in developing a sustainable food system in Vermont, we are all part of a much larger global food network. China is now the United States’ third largest source of imported food after Mexico and Canada. Chinese imports supply 70 percent of our apple juice, 50 percent of our garlic and 25 percent of our imported seafood. Despite a vibrant movement to procure these foods locally, America’s food system continues to become increasingly globalized.

Between 2001 and 2008, the amount of food imported to the United States from China tripled. The FDA inspects less than 1 percent of imported food, which allows food produced in China’s largely unregulated system to seep through the porous ports of the United States and threaten our public health. American consumers are also endangered by common practices of U.S. food producers.

Competent food safety in China is inhibited by corruption, lack of enforcement and cutthroat business competition. In 2008, Chinese dairy producers added melamine, a toxic by-product of coal mining, to milk products. The milk products sickened more than 600,000 Chinese infants and killed 4,000 U.S. dogs and cats through contaminated pet food. Chinese dairy producers and middlemen were motivated by melamine’s ability to artificially increase protein levels, enabling the milk to sell for a higher price.

Food safety threats from Chinese imports stem from producers’ intentional use of harmful additives and dangerous production practices to compete economically. Economic pressures have similarly driven U.S. food companies to risk public health to increase profit margins—though these practices escape the scrutiny proffered to Chinese producers because they are legal in the U.S. regulatory system.

Food imports from China are rejected for two general reasons: the food contains illegal chemicals or additives; and the food, usually seafood, contains dangerous levels of veterinary drug residues. Various additives, chemicals and veterinary drugs are also used in U.S. food production. Seventy-five percent of all antibiotics consumed in the United States are fed to livestock to make them grow faster on less feed, and China’s use of antibiotics and fungicides in aquaculture is increasingly prevalent.

Chinese products are the most commonly rejected shipments at U.S. ports for their failure to meet safety and health standards. To better facilitate trade and protect U.S. consumers, the FDA is taking special action to bring food exports from China into compliance with FDA food safety standards. In 2007, a memorandum of agreement was signed between the United States and China that allows the FDA to maintain a physical presence in China and cooperate with Chinese officials to inspect Chinese food production facilities.

The offices in China were the FDA’s first foreign presence in a larger plan to better police imports to the United States. However, as of July 2010, only eight FDA employees were dispatched to China, including only two food inspectors for the three offices throughout the country. This small cohort of federal employees faces a daunting task of improving food safety in a country with nearly a million food production facilities. While China contains industrial sized facilities, food production is still largely decentralized—most production centers employ fewer than 10 people. The vast amount of food establishments and the intentional nature of China’s food contamination bodes poorly for the FDA’s success in China.

With such few staff members (13 in total, including local hires), the FDA must rely on collaboration with Chinese officials to inspect as many facilities as possible. However, FDA employees have stated that forging such relationships has been challenging. The slow growth of cooperation is evidenced by the FDA’s inspection rate of Chinese facilities: only 14 a year. One may think the FDA inspects U.S. facilities at a greater rate, but they are only inspected once every seven years.

When you look at the facts—Chinese food exports to the U.S. have tripled in 10 years, U.S. food facilities are inspected just once every seven years and a mere 1 percent of all our imported food is inspected at our ports—the problem is clear. And you don’t need a fortune cookie to know the wisest solution: The FDA must be given the funding, personnel and other resources to properly police our growing food supply from China. And Vermonters should continue building heightened awareness about their food sources.

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