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Organic Consumers Association

Tainted Ginger's Long Trip From China to U.S. Stores

  • Supply Chains Make Finding Source Tough; Lots of Small Farms
    By NICHOLAS ZAMISKA and DAVID KESMODEL
    The Wall Street Journal, November 19, 2007
    Straight to the Source

JUXIAN, China -- In July, two dozen Albertson's grocery stores in California received a shipment of fresh ginger and put it on shelves. Several 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.

But while the tainted ginger's country of origin was clear, the actual supplier -- let alone the farm where it grew -- was anything but. The path of this batch of ginger, some 8,000 miles around the world, shows how global supply chains have grown so long that some U.S. companies can't be sure where the products they're buying are made or grown -- and without knowing the source of the product, it's difficult to solve the problem.

Chinese ginger shows up in American cuisine in everything from soups to cookies, and sells in many U.S. grocery stores. Layers of middlemen obscure who actually produces goods, complicating efforts to police the production process. In the case of the tainted pet food that first raised concern over Chinese imports in March, neither the Chinese government nor the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has pinpointed the original source of the problem ingredient, contaminated wheat gluten. In that probe, FDA officials traveled to China and worked with the Chinese government. But often, U.S. officials trace problems with food imports only within American borders, due partly to limited resources.

Industry analysts say many U.S. companies save money by sourcing in China but are reluctant to spend on vetting supply chains. "You can't just throw the [orders] over the Great Wall and hope it comes back good," says Kent D. Kedl, general manager for Technomic Asia, a consulting firm in Shanghai that advises U.S. and European clients. He says companies "need people camped out" in China.

Some U.S. companies dedicate hundreds of people to keeping track of Chinese shipments, but others dedicate little to the effort. Christopher Ranch LLC, in Gilroy, Calif., is one of the companies that bought the Chinese ginger and distributed it to supermarkets. Bill Christopher, owner, says his company didn't test products it purchased because it expected the Chinese exporter to follow U.S. rules. Since the recall, he says he is now doing testing on imported products.

Mr. Christopher says the U.S. government should assume more responsibility. "The government needs to do more testing, and if they don't have enough people, then they shouldn't allow so much food into this country," he says. "I don't think it can be the responsibility of every supermarket and every broker."

Full Story: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB119543404007297464.html

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