Chinese fruits and vegetables account for about 12 percent of global trade, and while China’s agricultural imports rose in the first half of 2008 by almost 60 percent, China’s food exports increased to 30 percent, with a 12 percent growth in agricultural exports. Additionally, China supplies the US with a significant amount of seafood, canned vegetables, fruit juices, honey, and processed foods. But China has far less stringent standards for pesticide residue, and bans fewer pesticides than the United States.
In contrast to huge US agribusinesses, China has hundreds of millions of small farms owned and operated by families and small business owners. China’s food processing facilities are structured in much the same ragtag way. Instead of having a few giant food processing and manufacturing companies, China has hundreds of thousands of warehouses and small-scale food factories with ten or fewer employees; much of the food is produced illegally and in unlicensed workshops without basic sanitary conditions. Expiration dates of perishable food is deliberately altered, then mixed with fresh and outdated products.
Food distribution trucks are old and poorly maintained resulting in a high percentage of food spoilage and contamination.
China’s supermarkets lease space to dealers who peddle their own fruits, vegetables, and cooked-to-order meals. Cities across the country are sprinkled with makeshift roadside stalls; the countryside is teeming with neighborhood markets stocked with food and produce, well out of reach of state regulators.
China’s entire food supply chain is fragmentized. Most of China’s food sectors (agricultural, meat and dairy) are a hodgepodge of ramshackled operations that use unrestricted and unregulated amounts fertilizer, virulent pesticides, growth hormones, and antibiotics.
China’s regulatory agencies principally set standards and leave enforcement to local and regional authorities whose officials are regularly bribed. Because of the millions of food related industries, the business environment is highly competitive forcing business owners to ignore regulatory guidelines in order to remain financially viable “” and there are limited if any government subsidies in China. To make matters worse, China imposed food price controls to offset inflation but failed to factor in the high cost of fertilizers and seeds, leaving food producers to shoulder the cost difference, destroying their profits margins.
“Throughout the supply chain there were incentives to water down milk and replace it with melamine…Melamine was found in milk for twenty-two different producers in China, nine of which were exempt from mandatory government testing through a program aimed at rewarding companies that had gotten high marks on quality inspections in the past”
In 2008, more than two dozen countries banned milk and food imports from China after tainted milk products were found “- it was later discovered that US companies such as Nestle, Mead Johnson and Enfamil infant formula products, were all contaminated with melamine.
Because of the complex and inferior food supply infrastructure in China, the Chinese population has little if any faith in their government’s ability or desire to protect them against food contamination, especially after the melamine incident where two men were sentenced to death and a third given life in prison for their involvement in the melamine contaminated milk scandal that killed six children and sickened 300,000.
To enhance their global image, China created a “specialized supply chain for overseas markets, in which food safety is better safeguarded..”But despite this preventative safeguard and obvious public relations measure, Chinese food products are still contaminated with unacceptable amounts of pesticides and chemicals. And as we here in the United States are well aware, we can’t count on the FDA to screen food imported from China or anywhere else for that matter.
The US would be wise to follow Japan and Hong Kong’s import models. “Japan inspects up to 16 percent of food from China and allows in food that originates only from a small number of certified farms and plants,”according to the Rural Development Institute of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. But as their report points out: “More stringent inspection regimes are not fool-proof. In 2008, hundreds of people in Japan fell ill from Chinese-made dumplings laced with pesticides, and Hong Kong found melamine-laden in milk products imported from the Chinese mainland”