Cause for Concern In Chinese Bulbs?

Clockwise from lower left: Chinese garlic, California garlic, local garlic.
Clockwise from lower left: Chinese garlic, California garlic, local garlic. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Sue Kovach Shuman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Chef Frank Maragos gets garlic for his Culpeper restaurant, Foti's, at nearby Campi di Sogni Farm, where owner Juliana De Santis grows about 30 kinds.

Most of the rest of us, though, buy garlic at a supermarket. We don't know what kind it is, how fresh it is or where it's grown. But there's a good chance it comes from China, which produces 75 percent of the world's supply -- and whose food exports have come under scrutiny after recent discoveries of tainted pet food ingredients, toothpaste and more.

Garlic is the United States' biggest fresh-vegetable import from China, which sent us 138 million pounds of it worth more than $70 million last year. We also get small amounts from Mexico, Argentina and about 15 other countries. We eat a lot of garlic -- about three pounds per person a year.

Although most of our fresh garlic comes from halfway around the world, it's cheaper than garlic grown in California. For example, California garlic bulbs were priced at $4.99 a pound at Whole Foods Market last week, but a pack of five Chinese bulbs -- about a pound -- were just 79 cents at Great Wall supermarket in Falls Church. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says garlic prices have dipped 12 percent in a decade.

California growers think that stinks, because it's killing their business. They grew 18,000 acres of garlic last year, which is only about 2 percent of the world's supply. A decade ago, they grew 36,000 acres. In the early 1990s, U.S. trade officials found that China was "dumping" garlic, or selling it below what it cost to produce. A 377 percent tariff caused imports to dip for a while until shippers found a loophole.

Some California growers and processors say that even though they don't like Chinese garlic, they buy some because it's cheaper than what it costs them to grow it -- even in Gilroy, the "Garlic Capital of the World," which in July will hold its 29th annual festival celebrating the vegetable.

Bill Christopher of the 50-year-old Christopher Ranch there, one of the largest U.S. growers, explained why: "A 30-pound box of Chinese garlic is $14, but our cost [to produce it] here is $26.27." Although he claims California garlic tastes better -- independent lab tests show it's denser in texture than Chinese -- his company uses imports in some prepared products, such as sauces.

Like Christopher, John Layous of the Garlic Co. in Bakersfield, Calif., buys Chinese imports to keep costs low. He supplies Costco, Sam's Club and food-service companies. Layous rails against what he sees as China's unfair competitive advantage, saying his 185-person company, in business since 1980, pays decent wages and provides health and other benefits, unlike Chinese growers. "Another big addition to our costs is the expense we go through to make a safe product," he says, adding that U.S. companies are government-regulated to ensure food is safe.

Fresh garlic isn't the only form of the vegetable causing concern. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service says dehydrated Chinese garlic imports increased 384 percent in the past 10 years. Layous and others cite a 2002 report by the now-defunct Americans for Wholesome Food, a coalition of businesses and organizations dedicated to educating consumers, on domestic and imported garlic powder. The AWF's report, based on independent lab tests, found "high levels of lead, arsenic and added sulfites in two supermarket-brand imported garlic powders from store shelves."

Chinese imports in general have caused concern since U.S. pets got sick or died after eating food made from wheat gluten spiked with melamine, a chemical used in fertilizers that isn't approved for consumption, prompting one of the nation's largest pet-food recalls. And this month, the Food and Drug Administration warned U.S. consumers not to use toothpaste made in China because it might contain a chemical used in antifreeze and as a solvent.

The FDA, responsible for inspecting some types of food from 130 countries, last year was deluged with 21 million shipments of food imports, among them 199,000 from China worth about $2.3 billion. FDA inspectors refused 298 food shipments from China in the first four months of this year: They included catfish laden with banned antibiotics, mushrooms laced with illegal pesticides, and others. The rejection rate for Chinese goods is about 25 times that for Canadian goods.

The FDA has 1,750 inpectors, but only 450 work at ports, notes William Hubbard, a former associate director of the agency. "There are 419 ports of entry, ship, air and land crosses," he says. "The FDA is able to staff 40 of them. Some [workers] are part time."

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