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The growth of U.S. imports from China has exploded over the past five years; apple juice concentrate is a perfect example. Recent statistics indicate that 78 percent of the concentrate we import comes from China. The reason: China grows one-half of the world’s crops. That was not always the case. Since China entered the World Trade Organization in 2001, much has changed. Global trading has expanded and China is expected to comply with WTO safety expectations under a Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures Agreement. In addition, according to a USDA Report in 2010, the Chinese government recruited growers and “supported” the growth of the juice processing industry. The Chinese export their juice concentrates worldwide and the U.S. is a big purchaser. Food and Water Watch, in a June 2011 report, stated that children eat many common foods that come from China, such as apple juice, candy, and canned fruit.
However, the arrival of this product is coupled with the concern of food safety. With tales of the melamine scare in the minds of U.S. consumers and articles detailing a baby formula and KFC safety scare with Chinese suppliers, red flags have gone up. In 2011, Consumer Reports and Dr. Oz, citing research from the University of Arizona, found that 10 percent of apple and grape juice samples had arsenic levels above FDA drinking water standards. Two years later the FDA responded with news that although testing would remain at previous levels, new guidelines would propose a level of no more than 10 parts per billion of arsenic (matching that of water)—this strengthened guidelines. The FDA website declares, “The vast majority of apple juice tested contains low levels of arsenic.” It should be noted that some level of arsenic is present in soil.
Arsenic is not the only concern. An article in The Journal of Environmental Health, January 2012, concluded that China has poor environmental and waste management practices, excessive application of chemicals and fertilizer, counterfeit operations, lack of education regarding proper chemical application procedures, and lack of government and food safety regulations to develop and enforce food safety regulations. Additionally, an op-ed piece in The New York Times from August 2012 stated that China’s food safety problems highlight both the collapse of the country’s business ethic and the failure of government regulators to keep pace with the expanding market economy. As recently as October 2013, articles referenced a Chinese newspaper that accused three major juice manufacturers of purchasing rancid fruit. Sources indicate that this could produce a toxin, patulin, which can survive pasteurization (see “Patulin in Fresh Fruits,” page 31). Finally, Edward Wong reported in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in January that fields in China are “irrigated by water tainted by industrial waste.” This host of red flags does present food safety dilemmas for importers and the public as consumers.
Reaction to food safety concerns from U.S. companies producing and selling apple juice is mixed.
Searching for Solutions
The U.S. has been tackling the food safety issue for some time. Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) regulations have been in place for a long while. In July of 2013, the FDA announced proposed rules for the Foreign Supplier Verification Program (FSVP)—part of the Food Safety Modernization Act. According to the Act and confirmation from the Juice Products Association, juice companies are exempt from two of the seven proposed rules because of similar requirements from HACCP. Yet sources recognize that only about 2 percent of imports are actually tested.
On the flip side, the Chinese have made some inroads to ensuring food safety. Amid growing public discontent the Chinese government enacted the Food Safety Law, effective June 2009, to prohibit the use of unauthorized additives and also, more broadly, to provide a basis for strengthening oversight “from farm to fork.” Health-conscious urban consumers are willing to pay a premium for safe food, according to Denise Prévost in a detailed article in China Perspectives, March 1, 2012. These consumer concerns prompted the government in 2010 to appoint a national commission of three vice-premiers and a dozen minister-level officials to deal with food safety. The national Ministry of Health is the lead agency for the project, which is supposed to be completed by 2015. The government has acknowledged, “Many of the regulations are overlapping and contradictory.” A large number of agencies, 14, weigh in to some degree for food safety.