Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Beware the Tainted Ginger!

We've all read about the latest Chinese-produced toy recall, but I for one didn't realize that some Chinese-grown ginger was recalled back in July. As the Wall Street Journal noted on Monday,
In July, two dozen Albertson's grocery stores in California received a shipment of fresh ginger and put it on shelves. Seeral days later, state inspectors discovered that the ginger, which had been imported from China, contained a dangerous pesticide. State health officials warned Californians to avoid ginger grown in China. (Tainted Ginger's Long Trip From China to U.S. Stores" by Nicholas Zamiska and David Kesmodel, p. A1)

It may seem a little bit extreme for California officials to recommend that consumers avoid all Chinese-grown ginger on the basis of one tainted batch, especially in light of the fact that 78% of the unground dry ginger sold in the US is of Chinese origin, but it's more comprehensible when you consider that it was impossible for anybody to tell what the ultimate source of the problem ginger was. It got to Albertson's stores via a series of middlemen, going back to an export company in Shandong province in China. That trail is murky and obscure enough but becomes incomprehensible from there: the vast majority of ginger grown in Shandong province is grown on family farms, of which there are thousands, many of which supply the export company. It's impossible to tell which one or ones the problem ginger came from. So what is to be done?

American companies that buy Chinese-grown produce often demand such low prices that it isn't practical for exporters and importers to run tests, says Clara Shih, president of Best Buy Produce International Inc. The Vernon, Calif., company imports Chinese-grown produce and resells it to other buyers including supermarkets. "People in this country don't really care as long as it's cheap," says Ms. Shih.

I'm not so sure that that's accurate. American consumers have reacted poorly in the past to food safety scares -- think of the results of the publication of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and the Alar apple scare, to name two at the beginning and end of the Twentieth Century, respectively -- and it's not like American consumers are already conflicted about our commercial relationship with China. Not only that, but there's a lot of money to play with here. According to the article, Chinese-grown ginger wholesales for $7 per 30-pound box. The next-cheapest competitor, Brazil, produces ginger that wholesales for $35 per 30-pound box. That $28 per box margin can pay for a lot of inspections and testing; and it will, if American consumers demand it.

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