Don't Miss Out

Subscribe to OCA's News & Alerts.

Wal-Mart's Push for Fewer Restrictions on Food Imports is Jeopardizing Food Safety

Web Note: Another Call for Country of Origin Labeling! Click here to read OCA Director Ronnie Cummin's recent Op-Ed on COOL.

Americans are facing an unprecedented food crisis because of lack of controls on raw food products and processed foods from China. The federal Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture are so far behind the Chinese imports curve that only a tiny percentage of food coming from the world's most populous country is inspected before it hits the grocery shelves.

The inspection system is so inadequate that even pet food containing Chinese ingredients and processed in Canada got into the United States and sickened or killed hundreds of animals. The pet food was infused with melamine, a toxic substance that indicates the food contains high-quality protein. Pet owners in the United States bought top-name food for their animals and got poison. Just this week Chinese toothpaste sold in Central America was found to contain a deadly chemical. No word yet if the toothpaste is marketed in the United States.

But it's not just about pet food and toothpaste.

In recent weeks livestock originating in China has been quarantined either for disease or chemical contaminants banned in U.S. livestock. A report a few weeks ago found catfish fillets from fish raised in China's giant aquatic farms were tainted with bacteria and heavy metals.

Those examples are among the few inspectors caught. In realty, Americans strolling through their food market have no idea if meat or fish or anything else imported from China is clean and safe because food safety regulations are not enforced and port inspections are hit-and-miss at best.

While most American grocers are responsible business people who put their customers first, some are not. Wal-Mart, for example, has quietly but effectively led a campaign opposing tougher food safety regulation, port inspections and country of origin labeling. Wal-Mart is the nation's largest food retailer. Its clout has an enormous effect on the U.S. food supply. The company is China's eighth-largest trading partner; some 10 percent of everything (including food) imported into the United States from China was imported by Wal-Mart in 2004.

This is no small matter. Chinese exports of agricultural products spiked to $2.26 billion last year, up from $133 million 25 years ago. Regulation and safety inspections have not kept pace. Congress and the Bush administration have seemed more interested in smooth trade and foreign relations with China than in the safety of the food Americans put on the table.

If ever there was a strong argument for rapid deployment of country-of-origin labeling, it's the China story. The legislation has been stalled for years, having been blocked by importers, some food processors and the grocers' lobby, led by Wal-Mart. Origin labels at least would give consumers a choice. The market would be affected, and exporters like China and importers like Wal-Mart would have to begin to clean up their act.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper's Editorial Board.