The Windsor Star (link is no longer active)
By Adam Minter, Bloomberg
The juice of rotten Chinese apples isn’t something that most North American parents would serve to their children. But if a recent report from the Chinese press is accurate, they may very well have been doing so for years without anyone – including U.S. government inspectors – knowing it.
The news was broken by the independent-minded 21st Century Business Herald, which sent reporters to a region of the country known for its fruit groves and fruit-juice manufacturers. They found three of China’s leading juice manufacturers purchasing rotten apples and pears from farmers unable to sell them for direct human consumption.
Chinese regulators shut down two of the plants, despite failing to find stocks of rotten fruit on the factory premises, and investigations are ongoing. Nonetheless, as Quartz reported last week, two of the plants in question receive significant government export subsidies (and one of the plants supplies 27 per cent of the apple juice that China exports to the U.S. and Canada, annually). Under such circumstances, it’s highly unlikely that China’s regulators will move to harm any reputations.
Compared to dead pigs floating down Shanghai waterways and poisonous fake mutton in hot pot restaurants, this may seem like a relatively minor scandal. The primary health risk in rotten apples is the persistence of a toxic mould. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is so unconcerned about this possibility that it allows domestic apple processors to establish voluntary controls to monitor the mould.
China, with its comparatively lax food-safety standards, almost certainly pays even less attention to it. In 2011, for example, 51 per cent of Chinese food processors and packagers failed food safety inspections, according to AsiaInspection, a Chinabased quality control firm. This should worry North Americans – especially those who drink apple juice. Approximately
85 per cent of the apple juice consumed by U.S. residents is imported, with the vast majority – 367.2 million gallons in 2012 – imported from China. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data collected by Food & Water Watch, a U.S.-based NGO focused on food-safety issues, Chinese apple juice enjoyed a 49.6 per cent share of total U.S. consumption in 2011.
In other words: If rotten Chinese apples (and the toxic moulds that sometimes grow
with them) are making their way into Chinese fruit-juice factories (and past Chinese inspectors), then more likely than not they’re making their way into North American refrigerators, pantries and bag lunches, too. What’s worse, chronically under-funded and under-staffed U.S. food inspectors lack the resources to capture many, if any, of these potentially tainted shipments.
Indeed, according to a May report in the New York Times, the U.S. FDA manages only to inspect 2.3 per cent of food shipments imported into the U.S. and 1,000 of the more than 250,000 foreign food plants that export to the U.S. In that sense, statistically speaking, it’s almost certain that most Chinese apple juice is never inspected, either in China or the U.S. For now this doesn’t seem to be much of a concern.
According to Food & Water Watch, between 2003 and 2012, U.S. food imports from China increased from 2.3 billion pounds to 4.1 billion pounds.