The discovery of melamine in pet food, antifreeze in toothpaste, and bacteria in seafood, all coming from China, sparks questions about how better to secure food imports (WashPost). Like America’s industrialized economy more than a century ago, “China’s is powered by zealous entrepreneurs who sometimes act like pirates” (NYT). Unless the country can improve its image quickly, its “export-driven economic miracle could face serious trouble” (Newsweek International). In wake of these product safety scandals, China executed its chief food and drug regulator for taking bribes (FT).
Some spy opportunities in these troubles. For U.S. interests, China’s export problems may represent “a dream come true” (IHT). U.S. food industry advocates (AgWeekly) are demanding enforcement of the country-of-origin-labeling law. But a state-run Chinese newspaper warns the United States against using a few tainted products as “an excuse to smear the country’s reputation of being a reliable source of safe export” (AP).
The globalization of the food industry may have made some of these problems inevitable by encouraging food companies to procure ingredients from all over the world” (NYT). U.S. food imports grew to $64 billion in 2006 from $23 billion in 2002, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department (PDF). The bulk of those imports are not inspected. Only 1.3 percent of imported fish, vegetables, fruit and other foods are examined by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but the AP reports that even those scant inspections “regularly reveal food unfit for human consumption.” Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson suggests a global safety agency should be established that can inspect factories in any country. However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture notes considering the large volume of global food trade there has been “relatively little disruption” for safety reasons. The Cato Institute’s Daniel T. Griswold asserts that food safety “is not primarily a problem of imports” since Americans also have been poisoned by domestically produced foods.
Food scares that lead to import clampdowns can result in lengthy, sometimes bitter, trade disputes. The U.S. ban on Canadian beef over fears of mad-cow disease in 2003 led to complaints of that the United States was violating NAFTA (CBS), the North America Free Trade Agreement. Countries in Africa refused U.S. food aid in 2002 over concerns that Europe would ban African food exports possibly tainted with American genetically modified seeds (Worldpress.org). Last fall, U.S. farm advocates reacted angrily to a Mexican ban on imports (LAT) of U.S. lettuce following reports of E. coli contamination. A paper by Christopher Ansell and David Vogel of the University of California-Berkeley notes that divergent food standards historically have been used as trade barriers. “As quotas and tariffs become less important trade barriers, sanitary measures are becoming a relatively much bigger problem,” J.B. Penn, an undersecretary of the U.S. Agriculture Department, told the Wall Street Journal.