09 May 2007

Where is it from, and what can we do?

Concerning this item, a reader writes:

This whole situation has made me throw out any food products from China that I have in my freezer. It is a pretty scary situation. The wheat gluten with plastic in it was imported into this country in bulk. We know about the pet food situation but it has also been used in other manufactured foods (the feed given to chickens, for example). We are told by our own government that the amounts involved will not be of any danger to consumers, but I still feel uneasy about it. I rarely eat out or buy prepared foods made in dodgy countries and I am going to avoid chicken for a while unless it is specifically sold as having been fed grains. I also read somewhere (but only in one place) that affected chickens have been slaughtered and discarded, so I don't quite know what to believe. I feel glad that I try to buy fresh produce only from the US and other proper places, and particularly from the North-West and California. Unfortunately, so many of the frozen veggies are now imported (mostly from China, Mexico and Chile) and, incidentally, it's often hard now on the packages to find the place where it was grown. The printing usually says something bland like "Distributed by" -- then the name of a US Company.

I hope our government is putting pressure on China to clean up its act. If US consumers were to start boycotting Chinese foods (let alone their goods), they would really feel it.

Unfortunately, laws about food labeling make it easy to obfuscate crucial information such as where food was actually produced. This has been a problem for years, because the laws on the subject are influenced by lobbying by companies that benefit from international trade (and also by agribusiness -- remember the efforts to weaken the legal definition of "organic" as it can be used on food labels). It's the same problem that leads to relaxation of the rules for Mexican truck drivers, who would not otherwise be qualified to drive on US roads.

Until we have a Democratic President appointing the heads of the federal regulatory agencies, the situation is unlikely to change (unless we have an episode of large-scale human deaths like in Panama). You could try writing your Congressman, but I doubt it would do much good -- Congress has other priorities these days. There are food companies that emphasize natural farming and voluntarily give lots of information on their labels, and you can presumably be pretty sure they aren't importing ingredients from the Third World, but their prices are probably high. As far as medicines are concerned, I've never seen them with detailed labeling about the origin of the ingredients. It's a bad situation. I don't see anything being done until large numbers of people -- not only pets -- in the US start dying from it, or until Americans start boycotting imports from countries with inadequate regulatory safeguards.

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