The House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats gathered information today regarding concerns being raised about imports of food from China that are entering the U.S.
“We don’t trust, for good reason, the Chinese to supply ingredients for our dog and cat food,” said hearing witness Mark A. Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute. “Why,” Kastel asked, “should we trust Chinese exporters for the food that we are feeding our children and families?”
Kastel added that the USDA and FDA are only inspecting 1%-2% of all the food that enters U.S. ports. And even with this small sample size, Kastel noted that a “disproportionate number of serious problems” are being found with Chinese exports, including “unapproved chemicals, dyes, pesticides and outright fraud (fake food).”
The Cornucopia Institute, based in Wisconsin, has been acting as an organic food and agriculture industry watchdog for the past decade. The farm policy group has been critical of fraud occurring with imports of organic commodities and finished products entering the U.S.
In February 2011, the USDA’s National Organic Program began informing the public of fraudulent organic certificates, the paperwork required for the formal sale of organic foods. Since then, the USDA has announced 22 fraudulent organic certificates, with nine of these from China.
“Because of the restricted nature of doing business in China,” Kastel told the Congressional Subcommitttee, “U.S. certifiers are unable to independently inspect farms and assure compliance to the USDA organic food and agriculture standards that are required for export to the U.S.”
“These imports should not be allowed to reach our shore until and unless we have a system in place to assure consumers they are getting what they pay for. Just like U.S. grown organic commodities, the safety of these products must be rigorously overseen by independent inspectors,” Kastel said. (The full testimony of Mark Kastel is available here.)
Patty Lovera, the Assistant Director of Washington, D.C.-based Food & Water Watch also appeared before the House subcommittee. “The U.S. imports over a billion pounds of [organic and conventional] fruits and vegetables from China every year and over a billion pounds of fish and seafood,” Lovera said. “And for some products, like apple juice and garlic, China has replaced domestic production of crops that have traditionally been grown here.”
Food and Water Watch produced a Chinese Imports Backgrounder in 2009 assessing the extent of lax inspections and breadth of scandals surrounding food imports from China that have been linked to human illnesses from eating the unsafe food.
As Lovera noted, food fraud is occurring “despite very public efforts by the Chinese government to crack down on food safety problems.” The news from China, she observed, “is a steady stream of controversies ranging from adulteration with counterfeit ingredients like melamine in dairy products, to widespread outbreaks of animal diseases like avian flu, and high levels of pesticide residues. Just last week, news reports described a Chinese government campaign to break up a fake meat operation, leading to arrests of more than 900 people accused of passing off more than $1 million of rat meat as mutton.”
Subcommittee chair Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) also voiced criticisms of Chinese regulatory controls, saying “it is beyond their ability to do a good job.” Added Rohrabacher: “The record of Chinese food plant facilities is extremely poor.”
Representative Steve Stockman (R-TX), who said he buys organic food himself, expressed his concerns about mislabeling and referred to it as “Orwellian.” Stockman mentioned that “the safety of imported food is something the media should really be spotlighting.”
In addition to discussing food, the House Subcommittee also focused on fake, counterfeit drugs coming from China. After the hearing, Cornucopia’s Kastel said that The Cornucopia Institute welcomes the increased scrutiny of how the USDA and FDA are assuring U.S. citizens that foreign organic imports are commensurate with U.S.-produced food.