Top | Opinion

Supply and demand

(article, Stephanie Beechem)

Toothpaste containing chemicals used in antifreeze. Tainted wheat gluten mixed into animal feed. Fish kept alive in polluted waters with banned veterinary drugs. These are only a few of the Chinese imports that have made news — and caught the attention of the overworked FDA — in the United States this year.

In 2006, the U.S. imported more than $64 billion worth of products, a $19 billion jump from 2003. Chinese imports in particular have enjoyed an especially large boom: more than 20 percent overall growth in the last year alone. 

NPR reported recently that China now produces 80 percent of the world’s Vitamin A, and is on its way to cornering other key markets in the U.S. such as apple juice (an important sweetener), cocoa, garlic powder, honey, casings for meat products, and wheat gluten. 

Because of the very low prices of these Chinese imports, domestic competitors cannot compete, and companies often have little choice but to import the low-cost ingredients.

[%image promo-image float=right width=400 credit="Photo: iStockphoto/ictor" caption="How much of your food travels by container ship?"]

Unfortunately, the FDA is woefully unequipped to examine the phenomenal amounts of food currently imported into the U.S. According to NPR, the FDA currently employs a paltry 650 food inspectors to examine 60,000 domestic producers and 418 ports. As a result, the FDA only inspects 1 percent of imported food ingredients every year, and tests even less than that.

How the lack of sufficient FDA testing affects our food supply is clear: American consumers must rely on the vigilance of food companies, rather than regulatory agencies, to ensure that suppliers and manufacturers are using healthy ingredients, as well as conducting quality-control tests. 

Unfortunately, some companies take this task more seriously than others. Some food giants, including ConAgra, Kraft, and Nestlé, work to trace their foods back to their ingredient suppliers and conduct regular tests. But all these efforts cost money — and many food companies simply want to cut costs wherever they can.

These three factors — the increasingly global economy, the skyrocketing number of imports to the United States, and the lack of testing at the FDA and at individual companies — mean that the danger of food contamination has never been higher. 

American consumers have little ability to check where their imported food comes from. Although the FDA requires imported food to be labeled with its country of origin, individual food ingredients may still be imported from other locations. Moreover, many companies refuse to reveal their suppliers or their testing methods.
The imperative to buy locally, and to become familiar with the companies and manufacturers who handle your food, has never been more important than now. While the government should undoubtedly give the FDA more money and more power over food imports, and tighten restrictions on frequent food offenders like China, it’s certainly within our power as consumers to be discerning and to ask questions, whether at the store or, even better, the farmers’ market, about how the food we eat is produced, where it comes from, and what it contains. 

Now that’s_ something to chew on.

p(bio). Stephanie Beechem is a writer in Portland, Oregon, and is an intern at Culinate.

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