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Who's smarter about food, China's consumers or America's?

May 31, 2013|By Karin Klein
  • The Smithfield label -- coming soon to a grocer across the Pacific?
The Smithfield label -- coming soon to a grocer across the Pacific? (Daniel Acker / Bloomberg )

Years ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration imposed tariffs on imported Chinese honey because China was dumping cheap, sometimes tainted, honey on the market and threatening the viability of U.S. apiaries. And for years, Chinese producers have gotten around the tariffs by routing honey through other countries, mislabeling it — and while they're at it, watering it down or cutting it with cheap sweeteners such as high-fructose corn syrup — and covering their tracks by filtering the honey so much that they remove all the pollen, making it almost impossible to track its origins. Studies by a Texas A&M scientist have found that about three-fourths of the honey sold in this country isn't what you think of as honey, though it might be slapped with a label claiming it's a product of the U.S.A.

I learned about this during a recent weeklong "boot camp" seminar on food issues at MIT, where scientists delved into one scary scenario after another involving Chinese food production. And that was just the appetizer. During one of the breaks, I chatted with a Chinese journalist from Beijing and asked her whether it had felt insulting to sit through so much negative discussion of her country’s food.

“Oh, I only eat American food,” she said. Food produced domestically was too dangerous. Not that she was eating so healthfully — largely boxed breakfast cereal, highly processed and far from anyone’s idea of a balanced diet. But she could feel confident that it hadn’t been tainted with melamine, illegal antibiotics or rat meat.

This has become common among China’s growing middle class, a food scientist told me. They pay a premium for the safety of American food products, while we, in our search for bigger bargains, buy more food from China and other countries with sketchy food-safety practices.

And that’s part of the reason that a Chinese company is moving to purchase the world’s biggest pork producer, Smithfield Foods Inc. Not only will that ensure supplies for China’s other growing appetite — for meat, especially pork — but it gives the Chinese company, which itself was embroiled in a tainted-pork scandal, an American name for its food. With the chemicals used to build muscle in the pigs and the vast amounts of antibiotics that swine operations use to promote growth and prevent disease from sweeping through their large factory farm operations, some food activists question how wonderful U.S.-produced meat is — but compared with China’s scandal-plagued food, it’s a haven of purity.

If the deal goes through, it will be interesting to track whether U.S. food standards have an influence on Chinese companies or the other way around. But with the Chinese people willing to pay more for safer, higher-quality food, perhaps the U.S. consumer, who has wanted food cheap above all else, has something to learn from them.


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