SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Poisoned pet food. Seafood laced with potentially dangerous antibiotics. Toothpaste tainted with an ingredient in antifreeze. Tires missing a key safety component.
U.S. shoppers may be forgiven if they are becoming leery of Chinese-made goods and are trying to fill their shopping carts with products free of ingredients from that country.
The trouble is, that may be almost impossible.
Chinese exports have been in the spotlight since the deaths of dogs and cats in North America attributed to tainted Chinese wheat gluten, followed by this week’s recall of Chinese-made radial tires and an alert Thursday by the Food and Drug Administration, warning about contaminated Chinese seafood.
My family hit some stores to see how hard it would it be for the average consumer to avoid the “Made in China” label — even for just a week.
My sons’ well-worn sneakers were starting to resemble sandals, so our family headed to the Empire Mall in Sioux Falls in search of a couple of cheap pairs to get the boys, ages 10 and 12, through the summer.
The quest began in the J.C. Penney shoe department. We soon found out this was going to be no easy task: Adidas, made in China; Sketchers, made in China; Reebok, made in China or Indonesia.
We finally found some New Balance shoes and I recalled reading that the company still makes some running shoes in the United States. The first few said “Made in China,” but we then spotted three adult styles marked “Made in the USA of imported materials.”
That sounded as close as we could get, so I asked my 12-year-old which of the three he liked.
“This one,” he said, pointing to the $75 shoe he’ll likely outgrow in months.
“Let’s keep looking,” I said.
We headed to a couple of other shoe stores — Famous Footwear and Payless — and found several other styles of sneakers mostly made in China and Indonesia.
Famous Footwear had one U.S.-made New Balance sneaker on sale for $40, but my oldest didn’t like the color combination so we moved on. I guess those well-worn sneakers can last another week until this little experiment ends.
Shopping for non China-made groceries at our local Hy-Vee grocery store seemed to be presenting few challenges, but it turned out to be more of a case of blissful ignorance than well-informed consumerism.
Products in nonfood aisles communicated their origins better than their edible counterparts. Labels of Suave shampoo, Dial hand soap, Kleenex tissues, Ziploc bags, Solo cups, Bounty napkins, Tide laundry detergent, SOS pads and Dawn dish detergent all read “Made in USA,” although none of the labels got specific about the ingredients.
Toothpaste was a bit more confusing — a concern considering some brands toothpaste made in China were recently found to contain a chemical called diethylene glycol, which is used to make antifreeze.
AquaFresh said “Made in USA” right on the box, but boxes of Crest and Colgate named only the companies that distributed the product, Procter & Gamble Co. and Colgate-Palmolive Co. respectively.
Procter and Gamble on its Web site says the Crest toothpaste found in stores is made in North America, not China. Colgate-Palmolive on its site says Colgate toothpaste is safe regardless of where the company manufactures it.
The labels on most food products we looked at were of little help.
The 2002 Farm Bill passed by Congress mandated country-of-origin labeling for seafood, beef, lamb, pork, fish, fruits, vegetables and peanuts, but the Bush administration has delayed its implementation for everything except seafood until October 2008.
Some fruits and vegetables sported voluntary stickers, but shoppers always should consider the calendar when shopping for produce, as stores get a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables from Central and South America during winter months.
None of the sweets in the candy aisle said “Made in China,” but most are likely made with at least one ingredient that originated there, said William Hubbard, a former U.S. Food and Drug Administration official.
Candy wrappers typically list just the U.S. distributor of the products, so label readers can’t determine the origin of the vanillin found in a Nestle Crunch bar, the carageenan in a Baby Ruth or the gum arabic in a pack of Mentos.
Those three ingredients, and numerous other flavoring and preservative additives, commonly come from Chinese companies, Hubbard said.
“The cocoa might come from another country and the sugar might be American, so you’re not going to get a country of origin on that product,” Hubbard said.
Companies in China produce about 80 percent of the world’s wheat gluten, common in most breads, cakes and cookies, and 80 percent of its sorbic acid, a preservative used in just about everything, he said.
We found a bit of irony in the ethnic food section, where a box of Golden Bowl fortune cookies and a bag of Kokuho Rose Rice brand sushi rice both sported “Product of USA” labels.
My boys have been asking to get their own tennis rackets — ours look like they once belonged to Bjorn Borg and Chris Evert — so we headed to a couple of sporting goods stores and Wal-Mart.
All of the rackets we found were made in China, but at least we were able to pick up a can of Penn tennis balls that were made in America.
We moved a couple aisles down to Wal-Mart’s toy section and found tons of products originating in China, including action figures, vehicles, stuffed animals and games.
Packages of Hot Wheels miniature cars, once a U.S.-made icon, now read, “Made in China, Malaysia or Thailand as marked.” Matchbox cars hail from either China or Thailand.
The classic capitalist board game Monopoly still qualifies, though with a caveat. “Made in the USA with dice and tokens made in China,” the box reads.
At least a deck of Bicycle playing cards is still homegrown, although we’ll have to switch our game to rummy as the cribbage board was born in China.
With the Fourth of July approaching, I decided to check out the store’s display of U.S. flags and found that all were domestic, with the exception of one style made in China.
I knew the small appliance section would likely be a lost cause for this quest, but I decided to take a look. All of the toasters and all but one of the coffee makers originated in China. A Bunn 10-cup professional brewer said it was assembled in the United States, but it was priced in the higher end of Wal-Mart’s selection.
Hubbard said all consumers receive value from the ubiquity of Chinese-made appliances, but when it comes to food products and ingredients, companies need to be more vigilant in tracking their supply chains.
“Unfortunately in the case of foods and drugs, there’s a safety issue on top of the quality issue,” Hubbard said. “If the toaster doesn’t work you just take it back to Wal-Mart and they give you another one. But if the food is unsafe, that’s a different matter.”
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