Why, Exactly, Does My Broccoli Need to Come from China?

BlogHer Original Post

photo from A Veggie VentureFast back two months Before Thanksgiving, I sprinted through Trader Joe's and in the frozen section, almost collided with a woman loading green bags into her cart. She exhibited no other signs of hoarding issues, so my cart, smart thing, knew to slow down to investigate. Before I could ask (which I do, often, and recommend, when a grocery shopper is stockpiling), she rolled her eyes as if a facial gesture could explain the apparent lunacy of emptying a freezer, then went on, "My kids love this stuff. Thank goodness, it's something so good for them!" She handed me the last bag of Greens with Envy, a pound of organic frozen mixed vegetables, broccoli, beans, spinach, asparagus tips and edamame beans, for $2.

Fast forward two weeks At supper, I was starved but could afford few calories, the perfect time to break open Greens with Envy. And then. There. Right on the front. In full disclosure. Was the big. Big. Big. Big Surprise. The "Product of China" label that conjured tainted toothpaste and toys with lead paint. But honestly, the label could have read "Lovingly picked by rosy-cheeked Girl Guides in a quaint and picturesque village of rural England" and I'd still have been shocked.

Why in the world -- this world -- does the United States (or any other country) need to import vegetables from China ((or any other country)? And what sort of craziness makes this appear, on the surface, like a good idea? After all, it's frozen vegetables, not fresh, with a long shelf life. It's inexpensive. It's quick and convenient. And of all the food products (note, not 'food') that we might purchase at the grocery store, plain frozen vegetables are wholesome and often, a great value.

Still.

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UPDATE February 11, 2008 Trader Joe's announced it would phase out this product and others from China. Did this post on BlogHer make a difference?

"Trader Joe's grocery stores are dropping foods from China to satisfy customers concerned about the quality of that country's products after last year's spate of problems. By April 1, Trader Joe's will phase out single-ingredient Chinese imports such as garlic, frozen organic spinach, ginger and edamame, a green soybean, says spokeswoman Alison Mochizuki. The ban doesn't include products with ingredients from China, a leading source of vitamins and minerals used in many processed foods." ~ Source: USA Today

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Fast forward two months. It's now January and I find myself seeing both farm fields and grocery aisles with new eyes and fresh alarm. Blame Michael Pollan, the author of the 2006 book The Omnivore's Dilemma which (1) my food friends all seem to know about but haven't read or (2) my other friends haven't heard of and could give a whit. But after listening to the audio version twice over Thanksgiving, I'm still thinking about this book. (I recommend it for you and a friend; this is a book to read together, you're going to want to talk about it.) I've even ordered a hardcopy because this a book I want on my shelf: to re-study certain sections, to underline certain points, to think through issues, to revisit again and again. It's a good read, it's provocative, it's, um, may I say this without your groaning? food for thought.

Fast forward to September 30, 2008. I suspect we're all in for a shock. You see, by labeling its Greens with Envy as a product of China, Trader Joe's is in voluntary compliance of U.S. Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) set to become law on September 30, 2008. (Note: COOL is still in some flux, since is is just one element of the U.S. 2007 Farm Bill, which as of this date, remains in conference committee to sort out differences between the Senate and House versions). Some foods will remain exempt from COOL, but more and more, we will be able to know the country of origin of the food we purchase.

Discussion So what do we think? How will we react once we know that our chicken comes from Christmas Island and our broccoli from Bali? Will we keep buying the same products or will Country of Origin Labeling change our purchase decisions? Will we even notice? Does price trump Country of Origin? Does organic trump Country of Origin? Does tastiness trump Country of Origin? And what if Country of Origin Labels send so many people to local farmers markets that they're unable to meet demand?

There are just so many questions that cannot be answered until we have information, COOL information. Me, I can't wait. But I think we're all in for some real surprises.

BlogHer food editor Alanna Kellogg may wonder why broccoli needs to be imported from China but she loves Trader Joe's Greens with Envy and yesterday posted a recipe for Green Envy Noodles.

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