WHERE DOES YOUR FOOD REALLY COME FROM?
By Meagan Riley Grant
We are fortunate to live in an era when a tremendous variety of food is available year-round from places all over the globe. When you think historically of the heartache and human drama over potatoes, spices and teas, it’s truly a luxury to have at our fingertips all the tasty treasures the world has to offer. But that convenience is both a blessing and a curse.
At what cost does this plethora of goods come? Back in Boston, circa 1773, those Colonists weren’t thinking about carbon footprints, fair trade or whether their tea was organically grown. The revolution we are experiencing today, however, concerns the way we think about what we eat and where it comes from.
The typical modern grocery store — with 52 types of cereal and year-round red strawberries — is like the interstate highway version of farm-to-table. With so many choices and conveniences available, who can argue? It feels justifiable, part of living the American dream, except when you stop and question the logic in buying grapes from Chile when here in California we produce 90% of all table grapes grown in the US.
We are now firmly entrenched in a global food economy, importing about 20% of our food supply, according to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). While US producers are capable of supplying sufficient meat, poultry and egg products to satisfy America’s market, international trade has become essential to the US economy. Many countries even demand a reciprocal trade agreement — thus the Chilean grapes for sale in Napa. So, in addition to importing to meet the demands of American consumers, we also import so that we can export. Foreign trade works both ways.
While eating “locally” is the trend du jour, the globalization of our food supply has been in the works for several centuries. If we were to truly eat locally, in our area we would be living on buckeye nuts, acorns, native clover and quail. The transportation of food, seeds, palates and ideas has allowed not only for better food, but for more variety in our diets and, consequently, longer, healthier lives.
But dangerous and unpredictable consequences come with the territory. Despite potatoes being synonymous with Ireland, they actually originated in South America. They were introduced to Europe only after the Spanish conquest of the Inca empire. European diets improved dramatically in the aftermath, ushering in a huge population boom. The tradeoff, however, was that it was a ship importing guano fertilizer into Europe that carried the organism that blighted the potato crop in Ireland in the 1840s, causing approximately a million deaths and forcing another million people to emigrate.
While the idea of living without our imported foods seems farfetched, if not impossible, nowadays many of us have become aware of sustainability, food miles, global warming and greenhouse gases. We have a planet with almost seven billion people to feed. Some are wildly overfed, some drastically underfed, with much of that disparity due to distribution systems. The entire system is in need of an overhaul.
Thankfully, some people are already doing something about it. Especially in our area. Take Tara Smith, a former executive who traded her comfy desk job and lifestyle for the chance to start Tara Firma Farms, a regenerative organic farm in Petaluma. Smith says, “Globalization is not sustainable. The globalization of food is the mistake. Globalization is not providing healthy food to feed people. The true cost of food, lack of quality and cost of transportation traveling from afar is not worth it. People need to be OK with what their local foodshed can provide. The middle and upper-middle classes need to exercise their buying power or this won’t change.”
As with any revolution, this change will not come easy. We’ve invested in the globalization of food even if it is backwards, upside down and vaguely immoral at times. We rely on other climates for the produce we like, other ecosystems for the fish we prefer and other governments for the cheap labor that keeps our food costs low. Even if food originates here, other countries may be involved before it makes its way to our table, making the global road from farm to table look like Lombard Street. Take for example some wild salmon caught in Alaska that is shipped to China for processing and packaging before making its way back stateside for sale — this scenic tour taking around two months.
Knowing where your supermarket food actually comes from can be difficult, if not impossible, in most instances. Unless a food is significantly altered in another country, it can be packaged with no mention of its journey. To further convolute things, food may be processed and packaged in one place but a producer may use ingredients acquired from other countries without noting those on the label. Foods packaged in the US aren’t required to have their ingredients individually labeled by country of origin. This is how Chinese fillers and seasonings can find their way into pet foods and toddler snacks. This is not to say that only food that is grown or processed completely within the US borders is safe to consume, that is clearly not the case — but it seems like the consumer should have the right to know and decide that for themselves.
There have been dozens of recent scares involving food from China. The industrial chemical melamine was found in pet food imported from China, killing dozens of pets across the US. Then there was toothpaste contaminated with dry-cleaning chemicals and drug residues found in seafood. Even Robert’s American Gourmet Food recalled the popular kids’ snack Veggie Booty after salmonella bacteria found in the Chinese-made seasoning were said to have sickened 57 people in 18 states. But the $288 billion worth of Chinese goods that come into this country every year are hard to avoid. China is the third-largest food supplier to the US, after Canada and Mexico.
Because of the reputation China has developed for itself in regards to food safety, stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s say they have stopped carrying Chinese products with the exception of teas and soybeans. However, nearly all synthetic vitamins added to foods such as cereal — including organic — come from China. It is a primary supplier of seafood, garlic, seasonings, apple juice, citric and ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and various spices. Roughly 80% of the ascorbic acid and 50% of the xanthan gum found in such products as baby food and salad dressing come from China. Supply chains are increasingly complex and, unlike TVs or toys, food doesn’t always say “Made in China,” even if it was.
According to the FDA, its “Country of Origin Labeling” (COOL) program is neither a food safety or traceability program, but rather a “consumer information program.” In 2008 its language was written into the US Farm Bill, requiring food processors to identify the countries from which cattle, hogs and some fresh produce originate. Canada and Mexico immediately lodged complaints with the World Trade Organization, arguing that the provisions imposed unfair costs on their exports, in turn reducing their competitiveness. In the fall of 2011, this requirement was shelved until the law can be rewritten.
Kristin Lynch, Pacific region director for Food & Water Watch, says, “COOL [contains] vital information for consumers to make decisions about what kind of food they want to buy. There have been situations where the investigation of a food-borne illness outbreak has revealed that the source is probably an imported food, so country of origin labeling in that instance could help consumers avoid a potentially contaminated food. And, outside of concerns about pathogens, many consumers have other reasons to want to know where their food is from ranging from trying to lower their food miles to concerns about chemical residues or labor practices.”
Regarding food safety, it may not even be that revealing to know where your food comes from. Simply knowing that your food is US-produced does not guarantee anything. The listeria-contaminated cantaloupes that killed 29 people last fall were from a Colorado farm, with “unsanitary conditions” referenced as the likely cause. This is now in the record books as one of the deadliest food-borne illness outbreaks since the Centers for Disease Control started keeping records in 1973. The spinach tainted with E. coli in 2006 that affected 230 people and killed five was all grown on a single field in California.
“We have a lot to do on food safety across the board,” continues Lynch. “We spend just as much time on food safety issues for domestic production as we do for imports. But for imported food, consumers are often less protected. The FDA inspects less than 2% of the produce, fish and processed foods that enter the US. Some countries that are becoming major food suppliers to the US, like China, have a poor food safety record and standards that are not the same as the standards in the US.”
According to government statistics, each year in the US food-borne illnesses cause 76 million gastrointestinal illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths. When you consider that there are over 311 million people in the US, those numbers are actually pretty low.
How safe are we comparatively? The US and Canada tied for fourth in a recent food safety performance ranking report that looked at 17 of the 31 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Australia, Denmark and the United Kingdom tied for first in the study. Italy, France and Ireland fared poorly, ranking close to last. The US came in last — again next to Canada — in food traceability. “Canada and the US do not have well-established farm-to-fork traceability systems for any food product,” says the report.
The only straight and narrow road from farm to table is when we head to our local farmers’ markets. Here in the Bay Area, our farmers’ markets display the bounty of our land of milk and honey. It’s food as an extension of our community and, sadly speaking, it’s a quality-of-life experience that is not the norm for most of the US. In between work, family time and weekend to-dos, there is inevitably a mad dash to the supermarket to pick up kale and dish soap in a one-stop shop.
Only about 2% of organic food sold in the US is purchased at farmers’ markets. So, in the global morass of food production, if we are not even sure where our food comes from, how can we be sure it’s organic if it claims to be?
All countries are supposed to regulate and certify with the same organic guidelines. For imported products labeled as organic and sold in the US, certifying agents in the products’ country of origin must be accredited by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) — with the exception of the countries that have equivalency agreements. These foreign certifying agents are supposed to certify the foreign farms to the same set of organic standards as any other organic farm, whether domestic or foreign. Charlotte Vallaeys of the organic watchdog group the Cornucopia Institute says, “This has been one of our concerns with organic imports: A certifying agent in the foreign country allows the product to be shipped to the US in a container that is accompanied by an organic certificate. When the product arrives in the port in the US, the only assurance that the recipient has of its organic status is the certificate, and there is so much room for error, whether intentional or unintentional.”
She explains, “On the ground, the USDA is very hands-off when it comes to oversight. They accredit the certifying agent, and do some inspections, but generally it is up to the foreign certifier to certify the foreign farm, usually through once-a-year inspections. Every handler who handles the crops or ingredients along the way is also certified and inspected once a year. But the USDA does very little testing and inspecting, since its job is to accredit the certifiers, not to certify the farms and handlers.”
She offers China as an example: “The USDA realizes that it needs to step up its oversight of organic certifying agents and organic farms in China. They performed audits of certifying agents in China, but have only four of the nine certifying agents operating in China. In their audits they found that many organic farms in China had incomplete or inadequate Organic Systems Plans, and that certifiers approved incomplete inspection reports. That’s deeply troubling. This suggests that certifiers working in China may not be taking the organic certification process seriously, leaving open the possibility for violations of both the spirit and the letter of the organic standards.”
Organic or conventional, local or imported, while the government may set the standards, the real burden of ensuring food safety lies with food producers to make sure their consumers are satisfied. It’s never good for business when customers find themselves in the hospital.
Ultimately, though, the true responsibility of ensuring that our food is safe lies with us, as consumers. We hold the power of the purse. Every revolution starts with the voice of the people. While we’ve become enamored with the myriad of food choices available from far and wide, we must take advantage of the plethora of information available to us about healthy eating for a healthy planet now – and maybe fall in love with local and seasonal again.
Meagan Riley-Grant is a writer and former producer of feature and documentary films including Monster and East of Havana. Always a food and nature lover, her relocation to Marin has inspired a deep appreciation for the local and seasonal way of life.