Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The China Syndrome

TRADER Joe's, the quirky grocery store chain that crams its narrow aisles with bargain gourmet and ethnic foods and $2 wine, is drawing a line in the gastronomical sand.

No more, they announced this week, would they carry single ingredient items that are imported from China. These would include imports such as garlic, frozen organic spinach, ginger and edamame, a green soybean, according to a spokesperson for the chain.

The ban is the result of unspecified "consumer concerns" about "products from this region."
But the Monrovia-based chain said they would continue to stock products that include Chinese ingredients.

This might seem an odd stance for a company that routinely entices its customers with Peanut Satay Noodles, fresh grilled tofu spring rolls, asparagus risotto or Mango Ginger Chutney.

But in view of recent events, it should come as no great surprise that there are "consumer concerns" about all things Chinese.

Since last year, when contaminated Chinese pet food killed or sickened thousands of animals in the U.S. and lead-tainted toys made in China were being yanked from toy store shelves, Chinese imports have become about as welcome as mad cow disease in this country.

A recent USA Today/Gallup poll found 46 percent of those polled are "very concerned" about the safety of food imported from China; another 28 percent said they were "somewhat concerned" about Chinese food products.

In the past year, the Food and Drug Administration has detained at U.S. ports such Chinese delicacies as:

Dried apples preserved with a cancer-causing chemical.

Frozen catfish laden with banned antibiotics.

Scallops and sardines coated with putrefying bacteria.

Mushrooms laced with illegal pesticides.

Not to mention thousands of shipments of tainted Chinese dietary supplements, toxic Chinese cosmetics and counterfeit Chinese medicines.

It is only fair to point out that the danger from contaminated Chinese food imports remains small. According to the U.S. Agriculture Department, less than one percent of America's food supply comes from China.

"Generally speaking, American consumers should not worry too much," reassured Luo Yunbo, head of the Food Science and Nutrition Engineering Institute at China's Agricultural University in Beijing. "We select the best products for the international markets."

Reassuring? Perhaps. But who among us wants to take a chance and wolf down a plate of sardines with a side of bacteria? Apparently, not the people who shop at Trader Joe's, and the market chain has, wisely, responded.

What is surprising is that, according to several media reports, other market chains aren't following Trader Joe's lead.

Whole Foods Market told the Los Angeles Times that it was "in a different situation" when it came to products from China.

"We don't carry them in our fresh meat, seafood or produce departments and we offer a very, very small amount in our grocery department," the Austin, Texas-based seller of natural and organic groceries said. Whole Foods added that it didn't make sense "to stop the progress we have made with sourcing select high-quality products for our private-label brands that come from China and other global partners."

El Segundo-based Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market, the Trader Joe's competitor owned by British grocer Tesco, said it would continue to sell food imported from China.

In the meantime, the New York Times reported recently that the U.S. Olympic team is planning to take its own food to China for the Summer Games.

When a caterer working for the U.S. Olympic Committee went to a supermarket in China last year, he encountered a piece of chicken-half of a breast-that measured 14 inches, enough to feed a family of eight.

"We had it tested and it was so full of steroids that we never could have given it to athletes. They all would have tested positive," said one official.

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