It started with pet food — when animals began dying mysteriously in the U.S. months ago and the source of the problem was revealed as poison coming from the prepared, brand-name foods served by loving owners.
The culprit was melamine, an illegal ingredient added to wheat flour by some Chinese factories to make the flour test with a higher protein content so it could pass for the more expensive wheat gluten.
Then came the discovery that some seafood from China contained an illegal antibiotic. Then contaminated toothpaste from China. Then juice containing unsafe color additives. Then dangerous, lead-tainted toys. Then the Chinese government arrested the head of its food watchdog agency, charging him with accepting bribes to approve and allow the sale of phony drugs that killed patients in China and Panama.
Zheng Xiaoyu, former director of the State Food and Drug Administration, was executed for his crimes on July 10. Before American citizens start tut-tutting and blaming only the Chinese, we should all remember that 101 years ago another emerging nation had similar problems with its food supply and created the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
And we must also remember, when critics slam the FDA for failing to inspect all the products imported into this country, that such inspections would require budgets many times the size of the FDA’s and other inspection agencies’ current budgets. Even with huge budgets, it is a near impossibility to inspect all the products arriving in the U.S. daily. And in recent years, FDA budgets have been slashed, not increased, while the number of imports rises exponentially.
Another important factor in this continuing crisis is that U.S. companies are the buyers of the tainted ingredients, the tainted seafood and the dangerous toys. They are looking for the cheapest deal for their bottom line and failing, in some cases, to set proper standards, to properly enforce those standards and to monitor the factories producing the stuff for them. If the Chinese manufacturers won’t allow oversight by buyers, it’s time for those buyers to find a new Chinese factory.
Rapid economic growth always attracts the greedy, who will cut any corners and take any risks, even with the lives of others, to turn a quick profit. While it is up to the Chinese government, as it is ours, to oversee manufacturing and sales standards, it is also the responsibility of U.S. buyers to be sure they know what they are buying.
Understandably, among many American consumers, the quest is on to buy products manufactured, grown and processed in the U.S., but U.S. producers can’t meet the demand.
Take shrimp. Gulf of Mexico wild shrimp harvesters produce the same kinds of large warm water shrimp grown on farms around the world. At this time, 92 percent of all shrimp eaten in this country is imported. Last year, 8 percent of the imported shrimp came from China, around 151 million pounds.
Chinese shrimp are banned for now, until it no longer tests positive for chemicals not approved for use in the U.S. But even though the ban on Chinese shrimp produced higher prices for financially challenged domestic shrimpers, experts say it’s unlikely they could meet the increased demand.
To compete, the Gulf industry would need controls guaranteeing a minimum price for imported shrimp — a move importers are unlikely to stand for. And many other shrimp-farming nations can step into the breach created by the ban on Chinese product, countries such as Ecuador, Indonesia and Thailand.
A restaurant may now buy a pound of imported frozen, peeled and de- veined shrimp, ready for cooking, for between $4 and $5 a pound. Fresh domestic wild product would have to cost between $8 and $10 a pound, if the fisherman is to make enough money to keep the boat running, especially with the increase in fuel costs.
Soon the domestic industry may be even less able to supply domestic markets. Since most restaurants will opt for the cheaper product, the Gulf is losing many fishermen and processors who are selling their docks for condominiums and taking jobs on tugs and cargo vessels. Crew members are hard to find, because jobs pay so little. Between hurricanes, high fuel prices and low shrimp prices, one-third of Gulf fish houses are gone.
Along with China’s 8 percent, international suppliers provided 1.74 billion pounds of shrimp to the U.S. last year, while domestic production reached 182 million pounds. Americans averaged a record 4.4 pounds of shrimp per capita consumed last year.
Shrimp is just one product. Federal managers are backing an ocean aquaculture bill now in Congress that would open offshore areas to fish farming for some finfish species and oysters.
When China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, most barriers to the U.S. market were lifted. China has since become the world’s leading seafood supplier. Last year, China was the third-largest seafood exporter to the U.S., supplying our markets with $1.9 billion in fish and shellfish.
China’s not the only country having a problem with overzealous or greedy producers rushing seafood that contains contaminants into the market. The Japanese are complaining that Vietnamese shrimp imported to their country contain illegal antibiotics.
It’s likely to happen anywhere while this global market is expanding rapidly and few countries or companies have put in place standards and controls to monitor product carefully.
Instead of simply calling for a huge increase in the FDA inspection budget, Americans should be demanding their companies create standards for their producers abroad, and enforce those standards onsite, if necessary. Overwhelmingly, U.S. consumers now say they would like all their food to be identified by the country of origin. Another good idea. Then there’s the Slow Food Movement, urging people to eat food produced locally.
Fortunately, we live in Maine and fresh food’s in season. Farmer’s markets have greens, strawberries are abundant, as are raspberries and blueberries. A new potato crop is emerging in Aroostook county. And we can now enjoy the succulent, small, coldwater shrimp — the world’s best — year-round, frozen.