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Agriculture + Chinese Apples = Assurance of Safety?
The concerns surrounding the import of fruit juice ingredients from China
by Karlynn Fronek
The growth of U.S. imports from China has exploded over the past five years; apple juice concentrate is a perfect example. Recent statistics indicate that 78 percent of the concentrate we import comes from China. The reason: China grows one-half of the world’s crops. That was not always the case. Since China entered the World Trade Organization in 2001, much has changed. Global trading has expanded and China is expected to comply with WTO safety expectations under a Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures Agreement. In addition, according to a USDA Report in 2010, the Chinese government recruited growers and “supported” the growth of the juice processing industry. The Chinese export their juice concentrates worldwide and the U.S. is a big purchaser. Food and Water Watch, in a June 2011 report, stated that children eat many common foods that come from China, such as apple juice, candy, and canned fruit.
However, the arrival of this product is coupled with the concern of food safety. With tales of the melamine scare in the minds of U.S. consumers and articles detailing a baby formula and KFC safety scare with Chinese suppliers, red flags have gone up. In 2011, Consumer Reports and Dr. Oz, citing research from the University of Arizona, found that 10 percent of apple and grape juice samples had arsenic levels above FDA drinking water standards. Two years later the FDA responded with news that although testing would remain at previous levels, new guidelines would propose a level of no more than 10 parts per billion of arsenic (matching that of water)—this strengthened guidelines. The FDA website declares, “The vast majority of apple juice tested contains low levels of arsenic.” It should be noted that some level of arsenic is present in soil.
Arsenic is not the only concern. An article in The Journal of Environmental Health, January 2012, concluded that China has poor environmental and waste management practices, excessive application of chemicals and fertilizer, counterfeit operations, lack of education regarding proper chemical application procedures, and lack of government and food safety regulations to develop and enforce food safety regulations. Additionally, an op-ed piece in The New York Times from August 2012 stated that China’s food safety problems highlight both the collapse of the country’s business ethic and the failure of government regulators to keep pace with the expanding market economy. As recently as October 2013, articles referenced a Chinese newspaper that accused three major juice manufacturers of purchasing rancid fruit. Sources indicate that this could produce a toxin, patulin, which can survive pasteurization (see “Patulin in Fresh Fruits,” page 31). Finally, Edward Wong reported in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in January that fields in China are “irrigated by water tainted by industrial waste.” This host of red flags does present food safety dilemmas for importers and the public as consumers.
Reaction to food safety concerns from U.S. companies producing and selling apple juice is mixed.
Searching for Solutions
The U.S. has been tackling the food safety issue for some time. Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) regulations have been in place for a long while. In July of 2013, the FDA announced proposed rules for the Foreign Supplier Verification Program (FSVP)—part of the Food Safety Modernization Act. According to the Act and confirmation from the Juice Products Association, juice companies are exempt from two of the seven proposed rules because of similar requirements from HACCP. Yet sources recognize that only about 2 percent of imports are actually tested.
On the flip side, the Chinese have made some inroads to ensuring food safety. Amid growing public discontent the Chinese government enacted the Food Safety Law, effective June 2009, to prohibit the use of unauthorized additives and also, more broadly, to provide a basis for strengthening oversight “from farm to fork.” Health-conscious urban consumers are willing to pay a premium for safe food, according to Denise Prévost in a detailed article in China Perspectives, March 1, 2012. These consumer concerns prompted the government in 2010 to appoint a national commission of three vice-premiers and a dozen minister-level officials to deal with food safety. The national Ministry of Health is the lead agency for the project, which is supposed to be completed by 2015. The government has acknowledged, “Many of the regulations are overlapping and contradictory.” A large number of agencies, 14, weigh in to some degree for food safety.
Early this year, the central government went a step further when they asked provincial authorities to “increase the punishment for illegal criminal behavior in food safety” (Business Times, January 6, 2014). Leaders plan to give food safety a high priority. At least in public messaging and enactment of laws, changes are on the horizon. How long it will take is in question. As stated by Prévost, food poisoning is still a health threat in China, somewhat based on sanitary conditions. In addition, producers, many of whom export product, have to deal with new threats of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and genetic modification.
Reactions from U.S. Importers
What is or should be the reaction of U.S. importers? As they import juice concentrate and other products, they rely on the FDA as well as their own quality control to monitor the situation. In total, 367 million gallons of apple juice concentrate reached U.S. shores in 2012 from China. When looking at other fruits, China is documented as the leading exporter to the U.S. of prepared peaches and pears (98.6 million and 50.7 million pounds, respectively). The U.S. imported a significant amount of frozen raspberries from China as well.
Reaction to food safety concerns from U.S. companies producing and selling apple juice is mixed. The company website for Michigan-based Old Orchard proclaims, “Apple juice concentrate has been safely imported into the U.S. from countries including China, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile for more than 10 years without incident.”
Nestlé Beverage Division reports it does import apple juice concentrate from China as well as South America. “Regardless of the country of origin, all of our imported apple juice concentrate is tested in the U.S. before we use it and must meet Nestlé’s strict quality guidelines—which always meet and often exceed U.S. guidelines. If it doesn’t meet our guidelines, it doesn’t go into our juice,” says Joanne Crawford-Dunér, marketing communications.
A Washington state juice producer, Tree Top, reconsidered the purchase of foreign, including Chinese, juice concentrate. Largely the change was to appeal to what they perceived their customers desired, according to comment from the corporate communications department. “We have not imported juice (fruit) concentrates in more than two years due to the availability of U.S. processor grade fruit for making juice concentrate,” states Sharon Miracle-Harris, Tree Top corporate communications director. The company decided in 2008 to only use U.S. apples “in order to meet our consumers’ preferences.” Miracle-Harris acknowledges that when asked to assess the capacity of China to improve safety, “Any additional federal requirements such as field auditing in foreign countries where a company may not have employees with expertise will certainly take additional resources.” She also notes that it might take a long time for the Chinese to comply.
A small producer of juice and apple cider in Minnesota, Pepin Heights, combines its own apples with 50 other Midwest growers to produce product, including cider and juice for sales to about 30 states. It too is remaining local and cognizant of consumer attitudes.
Currently, in somewhat of an ironic twist, the lure of potential markets has American apple and juice producers looking to export to China. Some of the why can be explained by comments in China Agribusiness Report, Quarter 1, 2014, published by Business Monitor International. The Chinese, who have increased purchasing power, are looking to value-added energy drinks and juices as they seek a healthy life. This likely will lure investments from regional and global soft drink manufacturers. (Tropicana, a juice producer, is one of them, according to the article). Other groups looking to export to China are Washington state apple growers. They actually did so until about a year ago, when the Chinese put a halt due to worries about apple disease. China did this in part to encourage its own export of Chinese apples to the U.S. Thus far, the USDA recognizes that pests (on the apples) are a problem and has not allowed this Chinese import. China has curbed imports in the past from Europe as well as the U.S. under a variety of reasons.
In conclusion, consumer demand, supply of apples and concentrate, and federal regulations all play an important part in the export-import process. The food safety issue, although not solved, remains a high priority for all participants. Will all the proclamations turn into actions? The enormity of the task for China means that waiting for real change may demand patience. In the meantime, American importers will need to be diligent as they meet the demands of consumers who are savvy and share opinions via social media. Chinese consumers, too, are becoming more aware of food safety and that likely will help propel their government to keep on top of safety regulations.
Fronek is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and member of U.S. China Business Connections Group, Minnesota. Reach her at email@example.com.