As the United States discovered at the worst possible time, you shouldn’t have your supply chain for critical goods rely on a foreign — and often adversarial — country. Right as the pandemic hit, America and our front-line workers faced shortages of critical medical equipment manufactured in China. The Beijing regime delayed shipments and later shipped goods that didn’t meet standards.
Now, policymakers are looking for other ways in which we can make sure important goods aren’t dependent on unreliable supply chains. A good start is what we eat.
Thirty-three percent of vegetables, 55 percent of fruits and 94 percent of the seafood we eat is imported. Each year, billions of pounds of food are produced in China. Recently, Team Trump announced an executive order aimed at boosting our domestic production of seafood. The order establishes a task force to streamline regulations on domestic aquaculture, find new markets to pursue and identify unfair trade barriers to confront.
Among the reasons cited was food safety: Many of the catfish and tilapia we import from China swim in pens polluted with waste and improperly used chemicals. Some fish are literally fed with manure.
We’ve heard the horror stories of Chinese food scandals: plastic rice, exploding watermelons, rat meat sold as lamb. Worse, we’ve experienced it: Remember melamine in pet food that killed many household pets?
Food safety issues are endemic in Communist China. A 2016 report from the firm QIMA, which audits food-processing companies in China, found that 48 percent of the Chinese plants it inspected failed to meet the standards of its Western clients. Violations included contamination with pesticides, medical drugs, heavy metals, bacteria and viruses.
It isn’t just seafood. China is the leading exporter of ginger. A 2017 investigation found high levels of pesticides on Chinese ginger sold as “organic.” One inspection company found that 37 percent of samples contained concerning amounts of pesticide residue. Contamination may be from drifting chemicals from neighboring farms, or it may come from polluted soil and water, used to process and wash the produce.
China’s plant-protein processing is also a key component of some foods. Nutritional supplements to synthetic meats have received a lot of consumer interest over the past year. One Chinese province is home to 70 percent of the global supply of soy protein isolate used in these products.
In 2018, laboratory testing commissioned by the nonprofit Clean Label Campaign found heavy metal contamination widespread in these protein powders used as supplements. Many came from China. Testing commissioned by my nonprofit also found detectable amounts of heavy metals in several of the new synthetic meat products.
Federal inspection leaves a lot to be desired. A 2011 report found that the Food and Drug Administration inspected less than 2 percent of imported food and had only conducted 13 food safety inspections in China in the previous two years.
Today, the numbers aren’t much better. Of the 109,000 foreign facilities registered with the FDA, the agency only inspects about 1 percent per year. Worse, the FDA announced in February that it was stopping inspections in China, owing to the pandemic.
While the FDA is still inspecting imports in the United States, inspection rates are low. Less than 1 percent of food imports were examined in 2018. And the Chinese themselves have acknowledged they can’t handle their own problems: In 2016, the Chinese government found 500,000 (not a typo) food-safety inspection violations in one nine-month period.
Put simply, the rules aren’t being followed — and it’s hard to enforce them. That’s a recipe for continued problems. Chinese food you find in local restaurants is often delicious. But as for food that’s made in China, buy local instead.
Consumers can make better choices. But the US government has a role, too. There are policy solutions, above all incentives to shift supply chains to the homeland and/or friendlier countries. We simply don’t have to put up with compromised food.
Will Coggin is managing director of the Center for Consumer Freedom.
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