Chinese Strawberries in October: The True Cost of Food Imports

The source of Germany’s largest foodborne outbreak in history, which resulted in at least 11,200 sick school children, has been identified as frozen, imported strawberries from China. In response, many parents and healthy food advocates raised concerns over the safety and quality of school meals, which in Germany average at about $2 per child. At this cost, it is difficult for schools to provide nutritious and high-quality food and they are forced to turn to large-scale manufacturers and distributors, who may value quantity over quality.

Over the past several decades, food imports have risen dramatically across the globe. In the United States alone, expenditure on food imports has increased from $41 billion in 1999 to $102 billion in 2011. The CDC estimates that roughly 1 in 6 Americans, or 48 million, suffers from a food-related illness every year, many of which can be linked back to imported food.

Although the vast majority of foodborne illnesses do not cause severe disease or death, ensuring safe and good food remains an important public health issue. Additionally, from both an environmental and economic standpoint, it seems more progressive and practical to replace food shipped from across the world with superior, local alternatives.

The Business of Trade

Over the decades, technological advancement has created national and global transportation networks that have expanded all aspects of trade, offering consumers access to novel items that were previously unavailable or alarmingly expensive. This includes a greater abundance and variety of food products. To meet consumer growth and demand, the food industry has changed from a system of small family farms to corporation-dominated agribusiness, which successfully caters to the extensive consumer palate.1

Many consider these developments progress. As the largest exporter and importer of goods and services, the United States argues that trade “is critical to America’s prosperity” and “helps ensure that America continues to be the best place in the world to do business”. However, small-scale local farmers may claim that a greater emphasis on internal trade is far more likely to foster economic independence, an increased supply of fresh, safe food products, and environmental sustainability.

Arguing for Local Food

In 2001, Rich Pirog from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University led a study to determine the average distance food travels in the United States before purchase. The result was 1,518 miles. This study, however, did not take imported food into account. A CDC report estimates that up to 85 percent of seafood and 60 percent of fresh produce is imported in the United States. Had this also been considered in Pirog’s study, is it likely that the number of food miles would increase significantly.

Since hazards can be introduced at any point during the food production and distribution process, items that travel long distances are more likely to be contaminated. “Food that spends large amounts of time in transit, changes hands multiple times, and is processed in huge batches provides nearly unlimited opportunities for both accidental and malicious contamination,” notes Brian Halweil, a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute.

Additionally, a growing trend in food imports from developing countries due to cheaper foreign production further raises consumer risk. These countries tend to have less oversight and fewer stringent safety and control regulations.

The potential for massive foodborne outbreaks is strengthened considerably with greater geographic distribution of food products. In Germany, for example, the catering giant Sodexo provided meals to over 340 schools across five states, thereby significantly exacerbating the extent of the outbreak.

Food production and manufacturing is ultimately a business. However, I would argue that viewing food as solely a commodity, and not also as sustenance has detrimental effects on human health, livelihoods, and the environment. A greater commitment to buy local, seasonal products on behalf of consumers, and an evaluation and consequent replacement of current food sources at the institutional level may be the first steps necessary to change this perspective.




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