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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Now, about buying local...

I keep going on about this, but it seems that every day I find another reason to bang the drum about growing your own food and buying locally if you can. Apologies in advance to my offshore readers: this might hurt a bit.

I've already had my say about NZ Garlic vs Chinese. Now it seems that we have even more reason to be wary of food imported from China. The scandal involving Chinese dairy company San Lu - 47% owned by NZ dairy giant Fonterra - which has left four children dead of melamine poisoning and thousands more seriously ill, brings to light the differences in food production standards between NZ and China, with whom we are the first country in the world to have a Free Trade Agreement. (Apologies to the family connection - I promise that I only raise this issue to make an important point)

While the impotent NZ Food Safety Authority sits on its hands about the issue of Country of Origin food labelling (the basic gist being that if it's not obviously from another country, ie, "Made in Thailand", then the redundant "Made from local or imported ingredients" is all the information the consumer needs to make a decision, whether those ingredients are from Australia or China), we find that there is indeed a Chinese product on our market that has been confirmed to be tainted with melamine, the same contaminant that has killed four Chinese babies. While we don't buy White Rabbit Candy, obviously enough people do to make it worthwhile importing here. Nor, you might say, do we eat candy like babies drink infant formula. But the question has to be asked, if we found it in the candy, what else is going to turn up that we don't yet know about?

The rhetoric coming from Fonterra as this crisis has escalated largely concludes that due to the scale of the operation, ie, the Chinese marketplace, it's virtually impossible to rule out every source of poison or contamination in the supply chain and to guarantee the safety of the product generated thereof. And lucky old NZ is the first country in the world to allow a free flow of Chinese goods - foodstuffs included, under the half-lidded eyes of the FSA - over our borders.

So, should we be happier to hear that the US has now opened up negotiations with our Government regarding a Free Trade Agreement? The farmers sure are, just like they were happy to know that Fonterra wanted all that milk powder to send to China. Now, I have nothing against farmers of any kind, but would we all be so happy if our own market was suddenly flooded with cheap food from the US? I only ask this with dire hesitation because of a few things I've been following in the news lately.

One of those things is the concessions that the US is likely to expect us to make to enable this FTA. They take issue with:
  • Restrictions on GM crops;
  • Our current pathetically weak labelling scheme for GM products (informing consumers is a barrier to trade!);
  • Import restrictions on potentially diseased food (stopping people from getting BSE is a barrier to trade!);
  • Sane copyright law which recognises the rights of customers;
  • Voluntary local content quotas for TV and radio (customer preferences are a barrier to trade!);
  • The Overseas Investment Act (requiring that investment actually be beneficial is a barrier to trade!);
  • Pharmac.
(Hat Tip: Idiot/Savant - quoted in full, even the non-food related stuff)

But it gets better. For the past few weeks I've been watching with growing disquiet the American FDA (Food and Drug Administration) pushing to have all salad greens and other veges that might carry bugs or other harmful living things like bacteria "pasteurised". As far as labelling that the food has been "pasteurised", they want to place only this innocuous symbol on the produce packaging:
What they don't want people to know is that "pasteurisation" is a synonym for "irradiation". Is that what this image suggests to you? Kirk James Murphy, MD, gives a concise scientific rundown of how NOT GOOD it would be to expose food to massive doses of radiation, while Jeff Fenske sums it up in a few short sentences. Butnerblogspot gives us a rundown on how the FDA plan to pull the wool over the American public's eyes regarding the "Irradiation/Pasteurisation" sham.

I shook my head and wondered where it was going to end when I first read these stories, but it wasn't something that I, all the way over here in clean green New Zealand, might ever have to worry about.

Until now. And so, as I was saying, there is no better time to think very hard about how much effort you might want to go to to know that the food you're buying isn't going to be poisoned or irradiated or whatever else might be happening to it out there before it gets to you.

At least my lettuce will only be irradiated if I microwave it.


susan said...

wow, thats alot of information. so in conclusion you're saying be careful right? also, where do supermarkets get their produce from?

and pinkberry is a los angeles-based frozen yogurt chain.

Dan said...

I guess my conclusion is that yes, we should all be proactive in knowing where our food is coming from and making an effort not to support producers that are more concerned with profit than customer safety. The best thing you can do is grow your own, but we know how hard it is to even supplement a normal household diet with homegrown food, much less produce 100% of your food needs.

Unless you're the Dervaes Family:

Sarah's Pinkberry craving here:

Dan said...

As for where supermarkets get their food from, I'm sure I couldn't say as far the US is concerned. My understanding in NZ is that the large supermarket chains have contracts with large farms to supply their top produce to them in bulk. What I see in the supermarket produce section, however, tends to be the biggest most colourful fruit and veges that are also the most tasteless, compared the uglier cheaper stuff you can find at the farmers' market or grow yourself.