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What food imports from China?

9 July 2009 3,389 views No Comment

The growing share of imported foods in U.S. supermarkets and restaurants presents new challenges for food safety regulators and private decision makers (Becker, 2008b). While the U.S. food supply is still overwhelmingly from domestic sources, the share of imported foods has grown steadily (Jerardo). The growing presence of imported foods reflects various trends: seasonal demands for produce from warm-weather regions; rising consumer demand for ethnic food, beverages, and spices; integration of nontraditional regions into global supply chains; and falling agricultural trade barriers. China is one of the most prominent examples of the emergence of a nontraditional supplier of food to the United States. Analysis of customs statistics shows that the annual value of food shipments from China rose from about $1 billion in 1999 to $5.2 billion in 2008. Before 1999, the value of food imports from China was under $1 billion annually, and in 1999, China was the 11th-largest source of U.S. food imports. But in 2008, China was the third-largest supplier. The share of U.S. food imports (by value) coming from China rose from about 2 percent in the 1990s to 5.8 percent in 2008.


The value of food imports from China was exceeded only by that of North American neighbors Canada and Mexico.


The rise in food imports from China reflects robust demand for these products as well as the eagerness of Chinese exporters to supply them. The growth coincides with China抯 December 2001 accession to the World Trade Organization, which not only lowered Chinese tariffs but also helped encourage a surge of Chinese food industry investment by both Chinese and multinational companies. Investment in China抯 food industry has been spurred by low labor costs and plentiful supplies of agricultural raw materials, like aquaculture products, fruits, and vegetables. Chinese prices of fish, fruit, and vegetables are as low as one-fifth to one-tenth of those in the United States (Gale and Tuan). Processing costs are so low that some fish, poultry, berries, and other products are imported to China, processed in factories along the Chinese coast, and re-exported (Sanchez, Franke, and Zecha). The Chinese Government supports agricultural and food exporters in various ways. Authorities give tax concessions, provide infrastructure and land, arrange low-interest bank loans, organize farmer supply chains, and assist exporters in obtaining required certifications and registrations (China Ministry of Foreign Trade and Commerce; Wang et al., 2009).


Food imports from China include a broad range of items, but about three fourths fall into a few broad categories: fish and shellfish, juices, canned fruits, and other fruit, vegetable, and nut products. Nearly all imports are frozen, pickled, or further processed in factories along China抯 coast. Few unprocessed perishable foods are imported from China due to long distance and concerns about disease or pest  transmission. Chinese meat and poultry have not been approved for import into the United States.4 Bulk commodities (grains and oilseeds) are generally not imported from China. While China is now an important supplier of apple juice, garlic, canned mandarin oranges, fish, and shrimp consumed in the United States, imports from China account for less than 1 percent of the total U.S. food supply (see box, 揑mports From China Account for a Small Share of the U.S. Food Supply?.


Fish and shellfish (mostly frozen and prepared products) are the largest and fastest growing category of foods imported from China. In 2008, fish and shellfish imports accounted for 41 percent of the value of food imported from China. Fish and shellfish also accounted for 32 percent of the growth in Chinese food imports between 2002 and 2008. Import volume exceeded 500,000 metric tons in 2008 (double the 2002 volume) and included tilapia, eels, cod, scallops, shrimp, prawns, crab, and various other fish.


Most of China抯 fish and shellfish products come from factories in coastal provinces that process fish and shellfish raised in ponds, lakes, or reservoirs tended by small-scale farmers. Chinese agricultural statistics indicate that fish and shellfish production doubled over the past decade; about two-thirds of production was cultivated, and a third was wild-caught (China National Bureau of Statistics, table 7-45). In addition, nearly 40 percent of exports are produced from imported fish and shellfish that are processed in China and re-exported (China Food Industry Net). Sanchez, Franke, and Zecha estimate that most U.S. seafood exports to China are re-exported.


Fruits, vegetables, nuts, juices and other fruit and vegetable products account for about a third of the value of U.S. food imports from China. The total for this broad category was $1.7 billion in 2008, over four times the value in 2002. Most of these products are processed; relatively few fresh produce items are imported from China. Perishable items are hard to keep fresh over long shipping distances, and U.S. regulations forbid import of some kinds of Chinese fresh produce due to concerns about potential disease and pest contamination. Moreover, processing costs are low in China. The largest component of this category is fruit juice (mainly apple juice), accounting for $677 million in 2008.5 Vegetable imports totaled $282 million. Fresh and chilled garlic and onions (the most prominent unprocessed vegetable items) accounted for about $70 million (75,000 metric tons), and dried and powdered garlic imports accounted for another $36 million (50,000 metric tons). Mushrooms and fungi ($110 million)梞ost in canned, preserved, processed, or dried form梐re another important vegetable import category.


Other vegetables imported from China include dried and canned black and kidney beans, peas, peppers, and vegetables, like pickled radish, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, and napa cabbage used in Chinese cuisine. Nut imports, mainly pine and macadamia nuts, totaled $80 million. The remaining one-fourth of food imports from China includes a wide array of items, like tea, noodles, and vegetable saps and extracts (most of which appear to have nonfood uses6), ginseng, pastries, baked goods, soy sauce, tofu, beer, and liquor. Many of these items are Chinese specialty foods, like Chinese brands of beer and liquor, Chinese-style snacks, and cooking ingredients, that are likely sold through Asian specialty stores or restaurants. Some are used in Chinese traditional medicines or consumed as nutritional supplements.


China is also emerging as a source of ingredients used in food processing. Imports of miscellaneous food preparations, malt extract, and protein concentrates are small in quantity but could pose a food safety risk if products are adulterated. Wheat gluten is a relatively minor food import, but a major incident resulted when its adulteration with the toxic chemical melamine in 2007 was linked to pet deaths in the United States. Wheat gluten imports more than doubled in 2006 to just under $20 million but fell to less than $6 million in 2008 after FDA issued an import alert for Chinese wheat gluten in 2007. Pet food and animal feed imports from China totaled $193 million in 2008, which consisted of $131 million in pet food and over $50 million in poultry feed, additives, and other feeds.


Source: ERS/USDA

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