Recent reports of an upturn in business for South Carolina's shrimping industry coincide with reports of an import alert on at least 1 million pounds of frozen shrimp, catfish and eel raised in Chinese ponds and shipped to the United States. While the two stories are tiny in relation to the gargantuan amount of trade between the United States and China, they might be a harbinger of change.
If so, that change won't come overnight. China's trade surplus soared 67 percent in July from a year ago, the second-highest monthly level on record. July's surplus totaled $24.4 billion, higher than every previous month except June's all-time high of $26.9 billion.
Nonetheless, South Carolina shrimpers have reported that prices for shrimp off their boats have increased as much as 30 percent after news of tainted Chinese seafood. With luck, this will be a shot in the arm for a state industry that has been hit hard by foreign imports not only from China but also much of Southeast Asia.
Food and Drug Administration officials halted 28 shipments from China at the dock until it can be determined whether the seafood has been tainted by drugs. In some cases, Chinese fish and shellfish are farmed in waters highly contaminated with bacteria. To prevent disease, the fish are treated with antibiotics. FDA officials say the treated seafood does not pose an immediate risk, but long-term exposure could increase the risk of cancer or a resistance to antibiotics.
Authorities have not determined if the stalled shipment is tainted. But the amount of seafood contained in the shipments is the equivalent of what 66,000 American would eat in a year.
The problem with Chinese imports is not limited to seafood. Fisher-Price, a subsidiary of Mattel, one of the largest U.S. toy manufacturers, recently announced it would spend about $30 million to recall 967,000 plastic toys made by a Chinese vendor because their paint contains excessive amounts of lead. Lead poisoning can cause vomiting, anemia and learning difficulties, and in extreme cases can cause severe neurological damage and death.
Last week, a U.S. tire importer announced the recall of 255,000 Chinese-made tires, claiming they were defective because they lack a safety feature that prevents tread separation. The tires were made by China's second-largest tire manufacturer, which also makes tires for several well known U.S. brands.
These incidents come on the heels of other faulty or tainted Chinese imports, including toy trains coated with lead paint, toothpaste and cough syrup containing a chemical resembling anti-freeze, and pet food that killed several dogs and cats in the United States.
China is working hard to reverse the bad PR resulting from the recalls. Last month, it took the extreme measure of executing the head of food and drug regulation, who had taken bribes to approve tainted products. Last week, Chinese authorities also suspended the export licenses of two companies that used lead paint on toys.
But despite those efforts, these tainted products eventually could have a significant impact on the U.S. market. U.S. consumers have enjoyed the benefits of low production costs and cheap products from China, which is reflected in the huge trade surplus. But they may balk at imports that could be deadly to people and pets.
The United States must demand better oversight by the Chinese government. And it must do whatever is necessary to ensure that products entering this country are carefully inspected and found to be safe before they are put on the market.
But we also hope these import scares, particularly food imports, prompt Americans to explore domestic sources for products where they know the origins of the food and how it is processed, and can be more confident about its safety. Buying from local producers not only means fresher, safer food but also can help boost the economy.
In other words, eat more South Carolina shrimp.
Recent problems with tainted Chinese imports shows it's smart to shop locally.
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