Monday, May 14, 2007

Diedtra Henderson Looks at Food from China

The article in the Boston Globe is about chicken. But the real scary part is about the shrimp that are grown under the chicken cages and feed on chicken droppings.

Readers with delicate tummies might want to stop reading here....

After a career in the food business my ears still perk up when I hear anything about the subject. last week's appearance of this smart young woman on Washington Journal impressed me a lot. She knows her stuff. She is realistic enough to know that government agencies will never be able to do for the private sector what they cannot or will not do for themselves. But she shines a few bright lights into dark political corners long overdue for public scrutiny. There are not enough inspectors and the few we have do not have the power to do much except write reports and pass them to others hoping they will be acted upon. It becomes the mission of the fourth estate to press progress.

Diedtra Henderson is an award-winning journalist who, since December 2004,has worked in the Washington DC bureau of the Boston Globe. Ms. Henderson writes about the business of health and the Food and Drug Administration. (On National desk rotations, she has written about the Valerie Plame investigation, efforts to tighten America's porous border with Mexico, and efforts to expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.) Her articles for the Globe's Business section have covered such topics as product liability lawsuits filed against Merck & Co. after Vioxx was pulled from the market, the FDA's tougher stance on direct-to-consumer advertising, blockbuster drug approvals, conflicts of interest among FDA employees and advisers, and Congressional efforts to bolster FDA post-marketing surveillance. Prior to the Globe, her 20-year reporting career has included stints at the Washington DC bureau of The Associated Press, the Denver Post, the Seattle Times and the Miami Herald.

This is from a piece May 9...

In China, some farmers try to maximize the output from their small plots by flooding produce with unapproved pesticides, pumping livestock with antibiotics banned in the United States, and using human feces as fertilizer to boost soil productivity. But the questionable practices don't end there: Chicken pens are frequently suspended over ponds where seafood is raised, recycling chicken waste as a food source for seafood, according to a leading food safety expert who served as a federal adviser to the Food and Drug Administration.

China's suspect agricultural practices could soon affect American consumers. Federal authorities are working on a proposal to allow chickens raised, slaughtered, and cooked in China to be sold here, and under current regulations, store labels do not have to indicate the meat's origin.
According to the US Department of Agriculture , China's top agricultural export goal is opening the US market to its cooked chickens. Representative Rosa DeLauro , who is fighting the change, says China does not deserve entry to the coveted, closed poultry market.

Agricultural exports from China to the United States ballooned from $1 billion in 2002 to nearly $2.3 billion in 2006 , according to the US Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service . DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut and chairwoman of a US House agricultural subcommittee , said Congress should signal its willingness to restrict imports from China until it improves food safety oversight.


Americans do eat food from around the world, [Richard] Lobb [of the National Chicken Council] said. "People don't have any problem with potpie from Canada. How they would feel about frozen chicken from China or specialty Chinese products that are canned or dried or something, I don't know."

In China's agricultural system, many farmers toil on 1-acre plots, while US farmers often work thousands of acres, said Michael Doyle , director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia and former chairman of the FDA's science advisory board.

In China, "there are hundreds of thousands of these little farms," Doyle said. "They have small ponds. And over the ponds -- in not all cases, but in many cases -- they'll have chicken cages. It might be like 20,000 chickens in cages. The chicken feces is what feeds the shrimp."

The USDA has found that up to 10 percent of shrimp imported from China contains salmonella, he said. Even more worrisome are shrimp imported from China that contain antibiotics that no amount of cooking can neutralize. Last month alone, the FDA rejected 51 shipments of catfish , eel , shrimp, and tilapia imported from China because of such contaminants as salmonella , veterinary drugs, and nitrofuran , a cancer-causing chemical. A long history of such test results spurred the FDA to begin working proactively with Chinese farmers on safer seafood production methods, Doyle said.

"In terms of harmful bacteria, consumers have control over that. Even in [poultry] we produce in the US, there is contamination with salmonella," Doyle said. "In terms of veterinary drugs and pesticides, well, good food handling practices won't fix that. That has to be addressed in the country of origin."

Joan Zahka , a Lexington woman, said she wouldn't buy Chinese poultry, based on what she has seen firsthand. Zahka grows her own greens and herbs, and when her children were young she ground organic baby food before it was sold in stores. She shops at Whole Foods for fresh produce and scrutinizes country of origin labels the grocery store chain voluntarily posts.

"There is no way I'm going to knowingly buy chicken from China," Zahka said. "There are all kinds of red flags for me. I've traveled through China. I know we have a much greater value on life here."

It's an old joke in the food business that you never eat at a Chinese restaurant unless you know the owner. Even then you need to know how many pets he keeps and how often he needs to replace them. Georgia, where I live, produces a lot of chicken and poultry products. I have been in a couple of processing plants and have seen first-hand how our food is handled. It's not a pretty sight, but neither is killing a chicken from the back yard, scalding and plucking it, cleaning and cutting it up for the kitchen. Given the choice, I'll take the factory product any day. But I also know how easily food can become dangerous to eat. Poor temperature controls for just four hours can turn the best foods deadly. And I have read disagreeable accounts of how trucks loaded with live chickens may leave the farm with only ten percent infected with salmonella and by the time they have made the trip to the processing plant the entire load is contaminated as they pecked at each other's droppings for the several hour trip...

About the time tilapia was introduced into the American market I had an assistant manager from the Phillippines. She said that where came from they regarded that as a "garbage fish," and she would never eat any tilapia. I dunno. A local grocery near my cafeteria was vacant for a while and reopened privately as a Latino grocery servicing a large Latino community suburban to Atlanta. At one time they had live tilapia swimming in big tanks that you could have dressed fresh to take home. I never bought any but they looked okay to me. But who knows where they came from? (Eating roughy strikes me as a lot more careless, environmentally as well as aesthetically. The orange roughy you eat is probably over a hundred years old by the time it is caught and packaged. That's a lot of time to absorb chemicals if any happen to be in the growing environment, )

Like I said, this is not a subject for people with weak stomachs. As for imported food from China, my view is that we need to be very, very careful.

3 comments: said...

The shrimp that comes from SE Asia, I won't go near. And unless I know that salmon wasn't farm raised, I won't touch it.

Upton Sinclair is rolling in his grave.

Anonymous said...

i always wondered why i can barely make it home every time after eating in any chinese restaurant without crappin my pants. the worst exploding diarrea ever happens right after eating in a chinese you know why...its all poison full of ecoli bacteria chemicals anti biotics human feces ect.

Hoots said...

Thanks for reading and leaving a comment. The post was published in May. Today is December 22 and the topic seems to be getting more attention.
Just this week the NY Times had a lengthy feature about Chinese fish farming, very much along the same lines.

"Farmers have coped with the toxic waters by mixing illegal veterinary drugs and pesticides into fish feed, which helps keep their stocks alive yet leaves poisonous and carcinogenic residues in seafood, posing health threats to consumers.

"Environmental degradation, in other words, has become a food safety problem, and scientists say the long-term risks of consuming contaminated seafood could lead to higher rates of cancer and liver disease and other afflictions."