From Pineapple to National Security

What did you have for dinner last night? You might be surprised to hear where your food likely comes from: China.  Now, almost 80 percent of the tilapia Americans consume comes from China. Also, 70 percent of the apple juice, 50 percent of the cod, 43 percent of the processed mushrooms, 23 percent of the garlic, and over 90 percent of your vitamin C.

Many people already know their smart phone was likely made in China. But few have likely considered their baked tilapia might be from China as well. The CCP virus (coronavirus) pandemic exposed exactly how much America relies on China for critical products. Products such as antibiotics, medical safety supplies, supplies for smart phones, computers, and military hardware are all manufactured by Chinese factories.

According to a Congressional Research Service report, in 2018, the US imported 5 percent of its food imports, which is about $7.5 billion worth of imports. The top items were fresh or prepared fish, seafood, and prepared fruits or vegetables. The trend is still picking up as imported food shipments from Asia accelerated in recent years.

While the total number might not seem large, America’s dependence on food items from China does leave U.S. consumers dangerously vulnerable to food safety issues.

At home, China is plagued by a barrage of food-safety incidents: deadly infant formula, honey laced with dangerous antimicrobials, eggs dyed with cancer-causing pigments, clenbuterol-tainted pork, toxic metal pollution of grain, soy sauce made from human hair, and poisonous ham. These problems have also found their way to the United States.

In March 2007, there was a wide recall of many brands of cat and dog foods due to contamination with melamine and cyanuric acid. There were numerous media reports of animal deaths as a result of kidney failure. The FDA traced the melamine to products labeled as wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate, common ingredients in pet foods, that were imported from two Chinese companies.

In July 2007, California state inspectors discovered that ginger that had been imported from China and sold in many local supermarkets contained a dangerous pesticide. State health officials warned Californians to avoid ginger grown in China.

In 2016, a Bloomberg Businessweek investigation reported that a Chinese company was found to have shipped to the United States shrimp labeled “Product of Malaysia” which tested positive for a banned antibiotic. U.S. authorities then discovered that the shrimp was actually from China, not Malaysia.

The most direct threat from China to American food security, however, is perhaps the country’s ownership of Smithfield Foods.

In 2013, Chinese food giant Shuanghui International, later rebranded as WH Group, bought Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork processor and hog producer. It remains the largest total acquisition of a U.S. company by a Chinese corporation. With that purchase, the Chinese owned one in four pigs raised in the United States and, by adding 146,000 acres, continued to be the world’s largest buyer of American farmland. China also gained oversight of nearly 50 meat processing facilities, and about one million sows, which feed tens of millions of Americans. In any given year, Smithfield sales exceed $15 billion, with the company selling more than 10 billion pounds of fresh pork and packaged meats per year.

Senator Debbie Stabenow said during a PBS NewsHour investigation, “Food security is national security. And I can’t imagine that the American people will feel comfortable if they wake up someday and find that half of our food processors are owned by China.”

In early March 2021, China suddenly announced a ban on pineapples from Taiwan, citing discovery of pests in shipments. The ban was, however, reversed after an outburst of support from the Country’s farmers, from local consumers, and the international community. However, Beijing’s war on Taiwanese fruit and Australian wine in 2020 does remind us that even agricultural products can be used as weapons in the global struggle for power.

We did see an earlier episode of this:  In June 2020, China reportedly told state-owned firms to stop buying American soybeans and pork. This was in retaliation to President Donald Trump announcing that he would strip Hong Kong of its special status in the wake of Beijing’s suppression of Hong Kong.

According to an infographic published by the Wilson Center in 2014, “China is the largest foreign market for US food and agricultural products while US is the second largest foreign market for China’s agricultural commodities.” The interconnectedness in our food chains may lead us to ask a question: Are these potential risks in our geopolitical competition with China?