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China's low standards, tariffs, forced labor threaten US food security, agribusiness experts say

American farmers and food producers say China is cutting costs by avoiding steel tariffs and having low food safety standards. It may also be using forced labor in the canned food production supply chain. China has not reached the level of dominance it has in the production of strategic or critical minerals, but the threat to U.S. national food security is increasing, experts say.

Published: November 1, 2023 11:00pm

American grocery shelves are rapidly filling up with cheap canned food imported from China, displacing American producers' goods and raising concerns about food safety and food security, U.S. trade associations and experts are saying.

According to the Can Manufacturers Institute (CMI), a trade association supporting manufacturers of cans for both food and non-food items and their suppliers, American producers are at a disadvantage because they have to pay U.S. steel tariffs, which do not extend to finished Chinese-produced canned foods.

In addition to the savings on tariffs enjoyed by Chinese companies, American companies are also held to higher standards of quality and labor regulations – and thus more costly compliance – than those of the Chinese.  

“That’s created an inequality, allowing for a cheaper, potentially lower-quality produce from another country that doesn’t have the same FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] standards that the American industry has to follow,” said Sherrie Rosenblatt, vice president of marketing and communications for CMI, told Just The News.

In 2022, China was the largest importer of agriculture and related products to the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The value of these imports was $9.5 billion, a 9.5% increase over 2021. Processed fruits and vegetables accounted for $1 billion of that total, 20% of which was canned products.

According to data from the China Canned Food Industry Association, canned food exports from China rose 12% globally to more than 3.1 million tons in 2022. Exports to the U.S. rose 19% to 396,300 tons. “As China enters markets, their tendency is to expand their market penetration,” Robert Budway, president of CMI, told Just The News.

Concerns about Chinese-produced canned food are part of a larger issue of Chinese control of U.S. agriculture, which includes a growing amount of America’s agricultural land owned by Chinese companies. A 2020 USDA report calculated that the amount of land owned by foreign individuals or subsidiaries doubled between 2009 and 2019. Although Chinese companies accounted for less than 1% of that, the increase in overall foreign ownership has the many in the American agricultural industry concerned.

“Displacing American farmland owners is just as destructive as displacing American agricultural producers on grocery store shelves and in consumer households,” Justin Tupper, president of the U.S. Cattleman’s Association wrote in an August opinion piece for Agri-Pulse, an agribusiness trade journal.

CMI's Budway said one of the ways Chinese producers compete with American producers and increase their market share is by cutting corners on quality and safety controls. This has resulted in a high rate of health and safety recalls, he said.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, imported products from mainland China accounted for 149 recalls in 2022, which impacted 9.3 million units. These recalls involved more than just food products, but Budway said the problem has arisen with food products as well.

This includes the 2008 Chinese milk incident in which infant formula and other foods were contaminated with melamine, a chemical that the FDA says may cause kidney stones and kidney damage. About 300,000 children were poisoned, and 54,000 of those were hospitalized. The same chemical made its way into pet food in 2009, which resulted in the deaths of dogs and cats. Reuters reported a total of 22 companies were involved in the tainted-milk scandal, including state-owned dairy company Yili.

A dozen agriculture associations wrote to the chairs and ranking members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation requesting that American producers be given priority in federal procurement practices. Domestic manufacturers and producers simply cannot compete with the low cost of production for certain imported agricultural products, which do not have to meet the same environmental, consumer safety and labor standards,” the letter stated.

Citing data from the Washington-Oregon Canning Pear Association, the associations told the committee members that China can deliver its product $3 to $4 cheaper per box than domestic producers.

Budway said CMI is investigating if Chinese producers may also be using forced labor to help keep their costs low. If so, it’s another way they’re unfairly competing with American businesses, he said. “We think, along the supply chain in China, that the Uyghurs are involved, whether it's the mining of ore for steel or aluminum,” Budway said.

The Uyghurs, who are predominantly Muslim, are an ethnic minority of China living in Xinjiang, a large region in western China. According to the U.S. Department of State, the Chinese government has been carrying out a campaign of mass detention, political indoctrination and forced labor against the group.

Though the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act was meant to keep out exports of goods made with forced labor in China, Budway said there are loopholes that may allow canned products made with Uyghur forced labor to make their way to American consumers.

He said that the U.S. needs better country-of-origin labeling so that American consumers can make better choices. Labels that identify where a food product comes from are small and hard to find. If they were more obvious, he said, the American consumer would respond.

“Americans want to bring the highest quality foods to their families. I can’t speak for anybody besides myself, but If I have a choice between quality and suspicious foods, I'm going to choose American quality food,” Budway said.

The CMI is also calling for steel tariffs to be repealed on American manufacturers and food producers all along the supply chain, which the institute says will allow American canned food companies and farmers to compete with imports on a level playing field.

Budway said that American consumers should be concerned with what China would do with an advantage over the American food supply, should Chinese businesses displace a large portion of American agriculture and food manufacturing.

China's trend towards dominance in food production and processing mirrors what has already become a hegemony in "strategic minerals" such as tin, silver, cobalt, manganese, tungsten, zinc, titanium, platinum, chromium, bauxite, and diamonds. The United States must import at least half the amount of each of these minerals that it uses each year. China controls a large portion of critical minerals used in electronics, solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicle batteries. It is the world’s top graphite producer and exporter. It refines 90% of the world’s graphite into a material that’s used in almost all EV batteries.

Reuters reported earlier this month that, in a response to challenges to the country’s dominance in the global critical mineral supply, China imposed export restrictions on some graphite products.

Automakers, including Tesla, Inc. and Mercedes-Benz, A.G. have rushed to secure supplies outside of China.

While its control over the U.S. food supply doesn’t have anywhere close to the weight of its control over strategic or critical minerals, Budway said China's impact shouldn’t be underestimated. “They can really shift the market, and they can really harm food producers and farmers,” he said.

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