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Pundit’s Mailbag — Eye-Opening Visit To China’s Garlic Growers

Our piece More Food Safety Lessons From Chinese Ginger Recall brought an important letter from a person with much experience in the industry:

I read with interest the news reports and Punditry regarding the recent Chinese fresh ginger recall, and subsequent comments from Jim Provost of I Love Produce.

I spent about 10 years of my career in the garlic and ginger businesses, with product from China playing a greater role as each year rolled on. It became clear that travel to China was appropriate, so I made the trips and learned much about the production and processing of both garlic and ginger. I offer the following observations:

  • While shippers in China routinely tout their growing operations as large-scale farms, the majority of export product is produced on small, uninspected, independent family plots. Farm implements consist of livestock, small, 1940’s era single cylinder diesel-powered walk-behind machines, and, of course, human hands and backs.

  • I visited numerous packing sheds, and observed on many occasions women in their 70’s crouching on the dirt floor, sometimes with sneezing children on their laps, grading, sizing, and hand trimming garlic or ginger using a small knife with a curved blade. I saw many fingers bandaged with what appeared to be masking tape, frequently stained red from a bloody wound.

  • Many garlic packing sheds inventoried numerous pallets of empty cartons. Some of these cartons were labeled “Product of Uzbekistan” or “Product of Thailand”. These cartons are intended for export to the USA. Mislabeling the product is done in an effort to circumvent the US Dept. of Commerce anti-dumping duty assessed on garlic produced in China.

  • When I asked through my interpreter if a shipper could provide organically produced product, the packinghouse manager went to his desk to retrieve a rubber stamp. The stamp simply said “ORGANIC”. I was quoted the same price for “organic” garlic as for the conventional product.

  • At a peeled garlic processing facility (actually an open-air, fly-infested shed adjacent to a malodorous drainage ditch), I observed workers dumping peeled garlic cloves into a large tub filled with a cloudy, viscous liquid. Upon inquiry about this step in processing, I was told that the tub was filled with a sulfite solution, which ensures that the cloves retain a bright white hue in shipping and handling. The packaging for this product was for the Japanese market, arguably the world’s most demanding market.

  • Wheat and other grain crops are cut by hand and sickle. Separating the grain from the chaff is accomplished by laying the stalks on the nearest road, where the passing truck tires pass over the stalks at high speed, with the vehicle’s wind leaving only the grain on the road surface. I observed this all over Shandong Province, with many laborers standing on the roadside with big 100-lb burlap sacks labeled “Cargill”. Once a suitable pause in traffic occurred, the laborers used handmade straw brooms to whisk the grain from the pavement into the sacks. Did Cargill’s office in China authorize this?

Finger Cutter Fingers

These observations, along with many others, have led me to the conclusion that food safety is only a pleasant thought in the parts of Shandong Province I visited. Claims that US marketers of Chinese produce can control, or even monitor, production are laughable.


China is not a place where you can rent a car at the airport and drive out to the field to check up on a grower. China is not a place where a US company can open an office and take charge of anything. China is an unregulated place where the shippers understand capitalism very well and will tell buyers exactly what they want to hear. Remember, outsiders don’t control anything in China — only the Chinese do.

Perhaps, someday, China might be able to ship acceptably safe product produced to Western standards. But not yet.

See recent article in Business Week online at:

As China continues to zero in the US market, as it has already done with manufactured goods, the US food industry, especially the fresh produce industry, needs to determine if a low price is really the most important feature of a food product.

— Roger Niebolt
Thousand Oaks, California

We would like to express great appreciation to Roger for sending along this letter as well as photographs he took on his last visit to Shandong province which do, to an extent, speak for themselves.

Roger did not have to send this letter; he no longer has any skin in this game.

He left Christopher Ranch in Pompano Beach in 2003 to accept a new position, “Garlic Division Manager” for the Giumarra Companies in Los Angeles. As Roger explains it, Giumarra saw an opportunity to break into the garlic deal with what they thought was a great deal.

Roger was brought in as a “Garlic Guy” to work that deal. After two years, Don Corsaro, President of The Giumarra Companies, and Roger, together determined there was absolutely no way a new Chinese Garlic deal could be managed by Giumarra in a legal, legitimate, safe, and profitable manner.

Don Corsaro is well respected in the trade as a man of both solid integrity and good business sense.

After working at Giumarra, Roger spent a short tenure at Albert’s Organics in Vernon, California… where he got to know frequent Pundit correspondent, Frank McCarthy, among others. Roger also worked an avocado deal for Interfresh, Inc. in Fullerton, California.

In January of this year, however, Roger made the decision to leave the fresh produce industry, as he was not able to find an opportunity in the industry which met his quality of life criteria. He now works in business development and sales with a non-food firm.

As such, his comments regarding produce from China come from a position of no bias, and no vested interest.

It is interesting because Roger’s take, as an ex-Christopher Ranch employee, is diametrically opposed to the perception of Jim Provost, another ex-Christopher Ranch employee who now heads up I Love Produce whose focus is importing from China.

Jim would acknowledge the food safety risk in China and would say that buying from someone in the US who simply imports from the cheapest exporter is crazy. But Jim does believe that the risk of food safety conditions in China can be mitigated by a company such as his — focused on China, with an office in China, etc.

Roger is basically saying that such mitigation is impossible or, at least, impractical.

Our own sense is that although Jim’s argument is correct in theory — a motivated US company could ensure food safety on its product out of China. Roger may have the better argument in practice — as really doing the right things can be so expensive that there is no point in doing them.

When the Pundit’s family was involved in growing and packing operations in the Caribbean — a less difficult venue to operate in than China — we didn’t just buy from local growers. We had teams of PhDs from Israel, experts in these matters, who ran the farms. Fortunes were spent on the most modern horticultural practices, such as drip irrigation technology, building modern packing lines and ripening rooms. To ensure proper packing, we brought packing house managers from California down to supervise the packing lines for tomatoes and honeydew melons.

Food safety wasn’t on the radar screen in the way it is today, but if we were doing it today, we would pick up the phone and call Primus or Davis Fresh Technologies or some other reputable firm and ask them to put a man full time down on the farm, maybe more if it was needed. As we sold to the UK, Europe, the US, Canada and Asia, we would certainly have had many different certifications from third-party-audited standards, such as Eurepgap, to proprietary standards, such as Marks & Spencer’s Field to Fork accreditation.

In effect, we didn’t buy locally produced product in the Caribbean; we created, at great expense, an island of western standards within countries that did not have them at the time.

But we see nobody doing anything like this in China on the produce side. Possibly Nestle or Kraft do this — building a western plant and supervising it, but nether Christopher Ranch nor Giumarra, nor I Love Produce, have made that kind of multi-million dollar commitment to controlling product.

Roger wouldn’t deny that one buyer may check things out better than another buyer — after all, he went to China to do exactly that. The problem is that visiting a grower once a week and having an organic certification is not the same thing as controlling the product every minute and being Eurepgap and Farm-to-Fork certified.

So we are left with this situation: If a US buyer is purchasing Chinese product, obviously he needs to look to companies that do more than simply selling anything they can get their hands on.

On the other hand, it is very questionable whether any importers have the kind of control and the kind of third-party certifications that should make a fresh food buyer feel comfortable buying much from China at all.

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