Here at the Pundit, we’ve been fortunate to have the benefit of insight from Jim Provost of I Love Produce many times in past, including here, here and here. As we got deeper into the controversy regarding produce from China and, specifically, garlic from China, we were appreciative when Jim suggested we could get some truly independent insight into the issue by speaking with Dr. Ron Voss, Extension Vegetable Specialist emeritus of the University of California, Davis. You can read his curriculum vitae right here.
Jim describes Dr. Voss as the “leading garlic expert in the world,” having worked both extensively with the California industry and other producers around the world, including China.
We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, to see if Dr. Voss could help us get to the bottom of the controversy over Chinese produce and garlic:
Dr. Ron Voss
former Extension Vegetable Specialist
and Manager, Specialty Crops
University of California, Davis
Q: Tell us your background.
A: I don’t pretend to be a food safety expert, but I’ve gotten into food safety to some extent in my 35 years as an extension vegetable specialist with the University of California, Davis. In that role I dealt with issues from new variety development to production and post harvest aspects, and to some degree processing — as a garlic person, mainly, involved in all facets.
I retired from UC Davis a few years ago as an ag specialist in garlic, onions, potatoes, and sweet potatoes in small farm, sustainable and international programs.
Q: What is your experience and knowledge of Chinese garlic operations?
A: I’ve had the opportunity to observe garlic production in China and have perspective on how things work. I’ve made trips to China over the last 10 years, some sponsored by the Department of Commerce and some by the Chinese Academy of Agriculture Sciences, which is like our USDA, not exactly, but similar in concept. I also have close links with universities there.
In addition, I’ve made a couple of trips as a consultant. An American-based company a few years ago was interested and involved in development of onions for dehydration. I took another trip about three years ago for a North American-based company importing garlic from China to look at some garlic operations and review its production practices.
A couple of trips related to potatoes gave me the opportunity to visit Shandung Province. I’ve visited agricultural areas across China, eastern southern, western, central… from small back woods farms to really extra modern agriculture that don’t look dissimilar to what is in the U.S.
Q: Could you give us your assessment of food safety in Chinese agriculture, and in particular garlic?
A: The general statement is probably not earth-shattering. Food safety programs in China certainly are not as rigorous as in the U.S. Prevention procedures, best management practices, monitoring and food safety processes are all issues at hand. Agricultural practices run the gamut from very primitive to ultra modern, so it is difficult to accurately make a generalization about the whole industry or any given commodity because practices are so varied. In the past 10 to 15 years, there have been vast changes.
When Christopher Ranch started importing garlic, it came from small operations, collected from local areas and brought to more central locations, and eventually ended up at a state board. By the time the load made it from China to the U.S., the garlic came from 50 to 100 farms. Now there’s been a lot of consolidation of small farmers, and much garlic is farmed and managed at large operations, produced and controlled under large companies.
Q: What impact has centralization had on food safety? And what role and influence does the U.S. buyer have on operations?
A: There is a question whether U.S. companies can strongly influence these Chinese companies. My brother was doing operations in China, so I have that perspective as well. He set up a large feedlot with a Chinese company. He developed another partnership for artificial insemination. While my brother’s business is not directly related to the food safety topics we are discussing, his experiences speak to the way the Chinese do business. They are clearly in charge, but also very receptive to technology from other places, and they are receptive to suggestions on how to meet market demands.
The Chinese are in charge and in control of what happens there. Also obvious, Chinese are adept at meeting market demands, so if there is pressure to accommodate the market or change things, they are efficient. They have a lot of technical know-how and don’t have the same kinds of bureaucracy that our industries complain about here in the U.S. in getting things done.
Q: Could you clarify that point, provide examples of what you mean by accommodating the market?
A: Changes range from export opportunities. I remember 15 years ago, China had the opportunity to export cotton. The Chinese government said, ‘thou shall grow cotton,’ and the country became a major cotton exporter in the world in one year.
They also responded to organic demand, from Japan particularly. Some will question whether the product is truly organic or whether they just put organic on the label and say it is, and they don’t have the organic certification systems like we have here. I was invited to participate in a conference on organic agriculture in China. Whether or not there is total truth in the industry aside, they were able in a short time to implement organic agriculture and meet organic demand in Japan
Meeting the demand from the U.S. in garlic is an example. How the Chinese brought in U.S. expertise and partners and U.S. buyers and developed the industry. They changed production practices, gaining control of hundreds of small farms, managing efficiently and bringing costs down in a relatively short time. They can adapt quick, quick, quick.
Q: Bottom line: Should U.S. buyers be concerned about the safety of certain Chinese produce commodities? Is Chinese garlic safe to bring in or do you recommend buyers look to procure alternative product?
A: It is easy to travel through the countryside and see deplorable images of defecation in the field, but it is also much easier to see much cleaner operations on farms with not a weed in sight. Weeds are often the place for microbial problems. Over all, the Chinese have shown they are making changes and want to. We need to make sure we are dealing with reputable companies.
We don’t have any reason to assume garlic is unsafe. The system they’ve established in China is not great. But the private industry has made great strides. There is no evidence to my knowledge that Chinese garlic is unsafe in any shape or form. Loads are rejected for different reasons, like U.S. produce. I’m not aware of any unsafe product. There is no reason to do a panacea and say don’t import garlic from China.
A lot of this debate on the safety of garlic started after the Chinese ginger experience. I’ve seen Chinese ginger packing operations. Some are as clean as any in the world and some are very primitive. The ginger that came in showed pesticide residue, which happened in the field, not the packing house. I’m not saying this was an isolated incident, but no one is immune from this situation. I can recall some nasty incidents in U.S. foods.
Q: Certain produce commodities are more prone to food safety problems than others. How does garlic weigh on the food safety risk scale?
A: There are three safety issues to consider: Microbial — like we have occasionally here from E. coli and other pathogens. The spinach E. coli outbreak would be an example of this. The second food safety area is pesticide residue; and the third issue is with heavy metals. And I know some garlic grown in that part of the world has heavy metals.
The way garlic is handled, the risk of microbial residue would be pretty slim, not impossible, but it’s not a fleshy kind of product as some more perishable ones. Garlic wouldn’t be at high risk for microbial problems. We must always assume there is a risk, but I doubt many experts would put garlic in a high-risk category for microbial residue. However, it could be high for pesticide residues or metals.
These are the three general areas where we can test if food is safe. One of things we can do for consumer protection is to do more checking on food to make sure it is safe. I don’t know what this will involve. But from a consumer standpoint, one way to build trust is to increase testing programs.
Q: How extensive and reliable are testing programs in China? With the Chinese control you spoke of earlier, how involved are U.S. companies in this process?
A: The Chinese companies don’t have systems to inspect like us. We need to have good inspection on this end, and they need to beef up inspection on their end. From my perspective, increased testing to uncover those deficiencies is needed. China wants our money and needs to export things to us. If we test and ship back and refuse to take them at their word, they’re adept at changing if there’s a need to.
I’m not in a position to say large supermarkets are right or not in refusing Chinese garlic, but their actions reflect consumer distress, and if they can find alternative sources they’ll probably go there.
China has portrayed that they’ll get away with what they can. A lot more testing and pressure at this end will make a difference. I don’t know the extent to which we can control operations. We can put safeguards in place in the categories of testing and monitoring. Part of that is having people on site to monitor production and sanitation and shipping and labeling processes.
Q: How costly are these monitoring and testing procedures? At what point does the Chinese garlic’s cheaper pricing advantage get undercut?
A: This can be done without being exorbitantly expensive. The cost must be factored in to have people on site. Don’t expect you can control the whole operation because that won’t happen. There is no reason U.S. and Canadian experts can’t be a part of the company, monitoring what the company is doing, testing and assisting in management. I don’t think the situation will be where we’ll control the company.
These Chinese companies have the knowledgeable people. It’s the bridge to make sure they control safety. I’m not aware of any incidences of tainted garlic, but in the future this kind of testing and monitoring needs to be a part of doing the business. It could be set up collaboratively on this side of the water or on an individual basis. The Chinese would be willing. They’re shrewd business people, but basically pleasant, good people as long as the plan is described as a win-win situation.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
A: Before the industry makes rash judgments, you need to ask, “Is there any evidence of garlic coming in with high residues or microbial problems?” I haven’t heard about it. There may well be, and if it exists, we need to follow up before making generalizations. Like uncovering food safety problems in the U.S., is it an isolated incident, or is something wrong in the commodity or the infrastructure or supply chain practices that creates cause for concern?
Look what happened with Taco Bell recently. It turns out the food outbreak wasn’t even caused by green onions in the end. The industry has a big responsibility to find out facts instead of dividing up and having a whole war.
To us it is the last line that resonates:
The industry has a big responsibility to find out facts instead of dividing up and having a whole war.
Yet we remember the letter from our retailer just yesterday, nd we realize that not everyone perceives their responsibility in that manner:
There might not be a “recall” on garlic, but if it is from China, there might as well be one. I think you’ll find most retailers pushing away any produce supplies and/or suppliers shipping in product from China.
In light of the continued media exposure of all problems with products coming from China, it is the only safe thing for a retailer to do.
In other words, there is no substantive reason to believe that garlic from China is dangerous. We know of no one who has gotten sick from it despite years now of shipments.
The nature of the product, the fact that it gets cooked and is used sparingly… all mean that this is an unlikely focus of food safety concern.
So, an agronomist, told to evaluate different sources of production, will feel a need to evaluate them all, look at real risks and make a prudent judgment.
Vendors who sell from an area, such as China, will, of course, find value in this highly reasonable course.
Yet when our retailer says that “In light of the continued media exposure…” avoiding Chinese produce is the “…only safe thing for a retailer to do,” he really is saying two things: First, that because there may be real risks which are difficult to evaluate, avoiding the product is the only way to ensure consumer safety. Second, in light of the risk a retailer runs by carrying product that consumers identify as risky, eliminating the Chinese product may be the “…only safe thing for a retailer to do” from the perspective of maintaining a retailer’s reputation for quality and safety with consumers.
So while vendors of Chinese garlic might like supermarkets to evaluate the safety of the product, the retailers are more likely to evaluate only the reputation for safety of the product.
In previous correspondence, Jim Provost has made the case that his organization has become very knowledgeable in China because it has an office in China and is dependent on importing from China. He has also made the case that his organization selects the best growers and packers and provides safer product.
The difficulty for Jim is that a retailer could accept all that as true and even believe the I Love Produce product to be perfectly safe. Yet the retailer still might not want to run the risk of being associated in the mind of the consumer with product consumers may perceive as unsafe or sub-standard.
To put it another way, we are at a moment in time when perception may matter more than reality.
We probably should not rejoice at that. If it is Chinese production this time that gets shut out, even if the science doesn’t support it, we fool ourselves in thinking it can’t be Salinas Valley production next time.
As far as the food safety reality, although Dr. Voss urges a prudent course, he provides far less than an unqualified endorsement of Chinese production practices.
On the positive side, he does report much improvement over the years. He also finds the Chinese quite responsive to buyer demands, meaning food safety processes can be improved if that is what buyers insist upon. He also finds mixed quality of ag practices and packing facilities, meaning that careful selection could leave production in higher quality facilities. Some farms he reports are ultra-clean without a weed in sight, which might reduce opportunities for bacteriological problems. And he clearly points out:
We don’t have any reason to assume garlic is unsafe. The system they’ve established in China is not great. But the private industry has made great strides. There is no evidence to my knowledge that Chinese garlic is unsafe in any shape or form. Loads are rejected for different reasons like U.S. produce. I’m not aware of any unsafe product. There is no reason to do a panacea and say don’t import garlic from China.
But Dr. Voss also gives us reason to be cautious. As he explains:
- Food safety programs in China certainly are not as rigorous as in the U.S.
- Agricultural practices run the gamut from very primitive to ultra modern
- There is a question whether U.S. companies can strongly influence these Chinese companies
- …they don’t have the organic certification systems like we have here
- …it is easy to travel through the countryside and see deplorable images of defecation in the field…
- …I know some garlic grown in that part of the world has heavy metals
- …it could be high (risk) for pesticide residues or metals
- The Chinese companies don’t have systems to inspect like us
- China has portrayed that they’ll get away with what they can
Dr. Voss has some specific ideas for improving safety:
One of things we can do for consumer protection is to do more checking on food to make sure it is safe. I don’t know what this will involve. But from a consumer standpoint, one way to build trust is to increase testing programs.
Yet food safety experts consistently tell us that testing is a verification tool — done after the food safety systems are put in place. Imposing an expensive testing regime — not only for bacteria, but for pesticides and for heavy metals — on a system not ready for it seems to be putting the cart before the horse.
In the immediate future, it strikes us as inevitable that importers of Chinese produce, such as garlic, will have little choice but to hunker down, reduce expenses and try to survive to fight another day. As Dr. Voss says:
I’m not in position to say large supermarkets are right or not in refusing Chinese garlic, but their actions reflect consumer distress, and if they can find alternative sources, they’ll probably go there.
So this is, right now, about consumer distress, not food safety.
Long term, the question is how much of the Chinese price advantage over California garlic is due to the fact that, as Dr. Voss says, Food safety programs in China certainly are not as rigorous as in the U.S. If it is an insignificant portion of their price advantage, then, in the end, China will probably regain its market share.
As Dr. Voss points out, the Chinese respond to buyer demand. So someone like Jim Provost — or maybe someone like Wal-Mart — has to tell the Chinese authorities that all the garlic acreage destined for export must be EurepGAP-certified by respected western accreditors, and that all processing facilities need to be British Retail Consortium-certified, also by respected western accreditors.
Dr. Voss tells the story of how the Chinese government could increase cotton production by simply demanding it. Now the government will have to use its powers to improve food safety.
It is probably more difficult to improve quality than to increase production, but it is the next step for China if it wishes to hold and maintain marketshare in food exports.
Many thanks to both Jim Provost of I Love Produce for introducing us to Dr.Voss and to the good doctor for sharing a lifetime of knowledge with the industry.