This China business has a lot of us Grinders pretty freaked about the state of our food supply, and for now the logical solution seems to be avoiding sustenance of suspicious origin. But cutting made-in-China foods out of your diet completely may be impossible, as writer Dirk Lammers explains in a great AP story. He and his family eschewed Chinese products for a week, all while hitting the stores hard, to see if it could be done.

First Lammers took his son shopping for sneakers, and the labels of most brands revealed their Chinese provenance. That’s no surprise for anyone who’s familiar with the old anti-sweatshop movement, but then it gets more interesting. As he reports about grocery shopping,

Products in nonfood aisles communicated their origins better than their edible counterparts. Labels of Suave shampoo, Dial hand soap, Kleenex tissues, Ziploc bags, Solo cups, Bounty napkins, Tide laundry detergent, SOS pads and Dawn dish detergent all read ‘Made in USA,’ although none of the labels got specific about the ingredients. … The labels on most food products we looked at were of little help.

Country-of-origin labeling for food was actually supposed to have taken effect several years ago, per the 2002 Farm Bill. But in classic form, the Bush administration has delayed the implementation of the new rules for everything except seafood (which is still subject to a few disturbing exceptions) until October 2008. If it weren’t for Dubya, we’d also know where all of our beef, lamb, pork, fish, fruits, vegetables, and peanuts had come from. Still, that wouldn’t help folks who now want to avoid, say, pet food or toothpaste with Chinese-made ingredients. And at this point, it may be safer to just assume that all processed foods contain a few:

None of the sweets in the candy aisle said ‘Made in China,’ but most are likely made with at least one ingredient that originated there, said William Hubbard, a former U.S. Food and Drug Administration official.

Candy wrappers typically list just the U.S. distributor of the products, so label readers can’t determine the origin of the vanillin found in a Nestle Crunch bar, the carageenan in a Baby Ruth or the gum arabic in a pack of Mentos.

Those three ingredients, and numerous other flavoring and preservative additives, commonly come from Chinese companies, Hubbard said.

Hubbard also adds that manufacturers in China produce about 80 percent of the world’s wheat gluten (which calls into question the safety of vegan meat alternatives as well as just about every presliced bread out there) and 80 percent of its sorbic acid, “a preservative used in just about everything.”

A lot of people are turning to organic and “all natural” foods to minimize their risk, but the processed, packaged organics that are popping up everywhere probably aren’t the safest choice either. And I’m even starting to wonder about the origins of my boring old pantry staples: baking powder, Trader Joe’s tea bags, rice that I bought in bulk at the co-op. Even when you stick to mostly whole foods from local farms or purveyors, it’s impossible to seal yourself off from everything processed. Nor would you want to; but at times like this, when the safety of certain foods is called into question, it would be nice to have clear labeling on everything.

Perhaps this whole fiasco will jolt consumers into demanding such labels—some folks are already pushing the government to implement the 2002 Farm Bill before next year. There’s a chance that will happen, but I’m not holding my breath for the current administration to pass any expanded labeling laws. If it can devote a few more resources to FDA inspections, that will be a start.

See more articles