(Updated to add proposed appointment of safety officers in China.)
The steady increase in cheap food imports is a threat not only to local producers but also to our health ... if reports from China are to be believed.
We imported $31.7 million worth of processed fruit and vegetables last year and the bulk of this was from China. At the same time we exported $100 million worth.
The imports included frozen vegetable products, canned fruit and asparagus.
There was also $10.8 million worth of “fresh” fruit from China up from $7.1 million in 2009. This included lots of pears and from 2010 grapes.
Then there was of course the garlic under the fresh vegetable category worth almost $20 million.
Last year a report by China’s national broadcaster CCTV detailed the manufacturing process followed by 16 companies that sell preserved fruit.
If you have just eaten a can of peaches imported from China it would pay not to read any further.
“Rotten peaches pickled in outdoor pools surrounded by garbage are spiked with sodium metabisulfite to keep the fruit looking fresh and with bleaching agents and additives harmful to the human liver and kidneys. The peaches are packed in uncleaned bags that previously held animal feed and then shipped off to big-brands stores,” according to the New York Times.
Toxic preserved fruit is the latest item on China’s expanding list of unsafe food products. Baby formula adulterated with melamine is the best known, but there is also meat containing the banned steroid clenbuterol, rice contaminated with cadmium, noodles flavored with ink and paraffin, mushrooms treated with fluorescent bleach and cooking oil recycled from street gutters.
China grows half of the world’s vegetables and almost 20% of its fruit.
China’s people consume most of its produce, but an increasing share is being exported to New Zealand, Australia, the United States, Europe, and the rest of the world.
One of the biggest problems with eating Chinese fruit and vegetables is the rising risk of ingesting one of any number of highly toxic heavy metals, including mercury, lead, and the cadmium. In fact, according to China’s own Ministry of Land and Resources, more than 10% of China’s arable land has already been contaminated by heavy metal detritus from China’s factories, mines, smelters, and power plants.
A second major health issue is the exceedingly high levels of pesticide residues often found in Chinese produce.
As documented in the Journal of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, the underlying problem is the tendency for China’s farmers to overuse pesticides in an effort to boost their meager crop yields. As a result, the FDA has had to reject Chinese agricultural products ranging from ginseng and frozen red raspberry crumble to mushrooms.
Der Spiegel recently reported that China’s farmers no longer eat the same foods that they sell.
Zhou Li, a lecturer at Beijing's Renmin University who studies food safety, told the newspaper farmers were now aware of the harmful effects of pesticides, fertilizers, hormones and antibiotics. They still produced a portion of their farm products for the market and a portion for their own families.
The only difference was that the food for their families was produced using traditional methods.
In fact, many wealthy Chinese have bought their own farms so as not to be dependent on what's available in supermarkets.
There were also reports of special plots of land used to produce food exclusively for senior government officials.
The Chinese people themselves are becoming increasingly concerned about what is happening in their country.
Air pollution has just been recorded at the end of last year as the worst in 52 years.
And this week a $330 billion battle to tackle water pollution got underway.
Figures just released showed the state of drinking water was a worry for more than 80% of citizens, the second biggest concern behind smog (90%) and over 80% say they have real concerns about China’s environmental problems.
The government recently announced tiered water charges to encourage people to use less water.
A six-month campaign against major industrial polluters is due to start later this month.
New safety inspectors
On Monday, the China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA) announced the launch of a trial program in which food producers will be asked to appoint a chief safety officers, according to the official news agency Xinhua.
The chief safety officer, appointed by the owner or management of a food producer, will be held responsible all issues regarding the safety of food produced by a company.
The CFDA said this would solve the embarrassing situation in which everyone in the management was responsible for food safety and no one actually was responsible.
Meanwhile, the whole food production and sales process must be fully recorded and be made traceable, the CFDA said