China Not Sole Source of Dubious Food

I have heard people in the grocery stores begin to check where
products are coming from and are shocked to find food coming from all
corners of the world.  It is a reality check for people who assume that
the food we consume would come from the US (though I could rant for
days how the notion that food is labeled "Product of the USA" doesn't
in any way give it a pass since we know that corporatization of US
agricultural has meant a lowering of standards).

Here is my quick and dirty take on all of it:

If I was a supplier to Wal-Mart being paid below what it actually
costs to product a product, I'm going to cut corners in order to try to
make a little money.  I'm going to hire day laborer farmworkers and
won't have any incentive to treat them with respect.  Often the workers
are forced to work all day in the hot sun without access to water and
often bathroom facilities with minimum wage or below.  If I'm the
supplier, I don't want to do anything that will cost me money, so if
harsher pesticides are cheaper and I think I can get away with using
them, I'm going to use them.  I'm going to spray them on the fields
(since I have to meet the high order volumes with unrealistic delivery
times) while the workers are continuing at an unimaginable pace just
trying to make enough money to support their families.  This is what
globalization without checks and balances has created. 

At ILRF we aren't against globalization but we aren't okay with
companies like Wal-Mart not being put front and center for being held
accountable for food standards being weakened.  After all Wal-Mart is
notorious for its low prices and like the New York Times article

"As long as we are pushing for the lowest price all the time, driving
our supply chain, you get more efficient," she said. "But at a certain
point there is no more efficiency and you sacrifice quality."

Join ILRF in demanding that food safety and worker rights are taken
into account when companies search for suppliers.  You can learn more
about ILRFs "Sweatshops in the Fields" campaign at
We have to look at the whole picture and recognize that food safety and
agricultural worker issues are part of a larger problem where US
companies aren't held accountable for the by-products of an inequitable
system they have actively fostered.

July 12, 2007
New York Times

China Not Sole Source of Dubious Food


Black pepper with salmonella from India. Crabmeat from Mexico that is too filthy to eat. Candy from Denmark that is mislabeled.

At a time when Chinese imports are under fire for being contaminated
or defective, federal records suggest that China is not the only
country that has problems with its exports.

In fact, federal inspectors have stopped more food shipments from
India and Mexico in the last year than they have from China, an
analysis of data maintained by the Food and Drug Administration
d_and_drug_administration/index.html?inline=nyt-org>  shows.

China has had much-publicized problems with contaminated seafood -
including a temporary ban late last month on imports of five species of
farm-raised seafood from China - but federal inspectors refused produce
from the Dominican Republic and candy from Denmark more often.

For instance, produce from the Dominican Republic was stopped 817
times last year, usually for containing traces of illegal pesticides.
Candy from Denmark was impounded 520 times.

By comparison, Chinese seafood was stopped at the border 391 times during the last year.

"The reality is, this is not a single-country issue at all," said
Carl R. Nielsen, who resigned from the Food and Drug Administration in
2005, after 28 years. His last job was director of the division of
import operations and policy in the agency's Office of Regulatory
"What we are experiencing is massive globalization," he said.

The F.D.A. database does not necessarily capture a full and accurate
picture of product quality from other countries. For one thing, only
one year of data is available on the agency's Web site, and F.D.A.
officials declined to provide more data without a formal Freedom of
Information request, a process that can take months, if not years.

In addition, the F.D.A. inspects only about 1 percent of the imports
that fall under its jurisdiction. So the agency may miss many of the
products that are contaminated or defective. The F.D.A. database also
fails to disclose the quantity of products that are refused, so it is
impossible to know whether just a box of cucumbers was refused or a

In cases of recurrent problems, the F.D.A. may issue an import
alert, which leads to additional scrutiny at the border. Last month,
for instance, the F.D.A. issued not only the import alert for the
Chinese fish, but also import alerts for Mexican cantaloupes and
basmati rice from India, among others.

Rafael Laveaga, a spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in Washington,
said the number of food safety problems from Mexican imports was
minuscule given the huge volume of trade. He said that Mexican food
products were scrutinized more thoroughly since they arrived by road
transit, rather than by ship or airplane.

"The proactive and professional relationship that exists between
Mexican authorities and the F.D.A. has always helped to expeditiously
mitigate and control any potential risks," he said.

Banarshi Harrison, minister of commerce at the embassy of India,
said India had recently strengthened its food safety laws. He said
contamination of spices and pickles might occur on occasion because
they were processed by many small manufacturers.

"There is really no evidence of a systematic problem for any particular product," he said.

Food safety officials from the Dominican Republic and Denmark could not be located for comment.

Despite the shortcomings with the F.D.A. database of import
refusals, the available information makes clear that quality problems
extend well beyond China, where officials recently admitted that nearly
20 percent of the country's products are substandard or tainted.

Critics say the F.D.A. has not changed to deal with the flood of
imports in the last decade, as trade agreements have opened up borders
to products from across the globe.

The United States imported $1.86 trillion in merchandise last year,
compared with $1.14 trillion in 2001, a 63 percent increase, according
to Commerce Department records.

An F.D.A. plan to revamp the way it inspects imports, called the
Import Strategic Plan, was completed in 2003, but shelved because of
budgetary constraints, several former F.D.A. officials said. The plan
would have focused more on finding potential risks in the food supply
using vast quantities of information - from inspectors and
manufacturers to foreign governments and consumers - to aim at problem

"It basically got deep-sixed," said William Hubbard, a former F.D.A.
commissioner who resigned in 2005 and is now a part of a coalition that
is advocating for more financing for the agency. "There was no capacity
to cover as imports went up," he said.

Noting that the number of import shipments has vastly increased in
the last 15 years, he said: "That's a huge, huge increase and they've
lost people. These guys are going to war without enough troops. They
don't even have guns."

Nancy M. Childs, a professor of food marketing at St. Joseph
University in Philadelphia, said the quality problems were an
inevitable result of companies pursuing the cheapest possible products.

"As long as we are pushing for the lowest price all the time,
driving our supply chain, you get more efficient," she said. "But at a
certain point there is no more efficiency and you sacrifice quality."

Ms. Childs added that countries that produce the cheapest products often have little regulation and lackluster enforcement.

Dr. David Acheson, the F.D.A.'s assistant commissioner for food
protection, agreed that the agency's system for reviewing imports was
antiquated and needed to be changed. He said that the F.D.A. should
revise its domestic food safety strategy to focus more on prevention
rather than simply reacting to crises.

The agency, he said, was currently working on a plan to revise how
it monitored food safety, both for domestic food and imported, which
should be released in the fall. The plan will depend on the F.D.A.
working with foreign governments and American companies to identify
potential risks to the food supply before they reach ports in the
United States.

"Fundamentally, starting at the border is not where we need to be," he said.

The F.D.A. inspects foreign shipments of food, drugs, cosmetics, medical devices, animal drugs and some electronic devices.

From July 2006 through June of this year, agency inspectors stopped
2,723 shipments of all such items from China, followed closely by India, 2,620; Mexico, 1,876; and the Dominican Republic, 887.

But China sends more products into the United States than any of
those countries, at least in terms of the dollar value. In 2006, for
instance, China shipped $288 billion in merchandise to the United
States, compared with $198 billion from Mexico; $22 billion from India;
and $5.3 billion from the Dominican Republic, records show.

Salmonella was the top reason that food was rejected from India, and
it was found in products like black pepper, coriander powder and shrimp.
"Filthy" was the primary reason food was stopped from Mexico, and the rejections included lollipops, crabmeat and dried chili.

Products from the Dominican Republic were mostly stopped because of pesticides.