Buying Fresh Food From China? What You Should Know About the Risks of Contamination

Fresh Produce Poisoning
(Illustration - Shutterstock)
By Robert Jay Watson 

China is infamous for its terrible air quality, which has become so bad in some cities that solar panels show reduced effectiveness because of the thick blanket of smog blocking sunlight for conversion to solar energy. This polluted air goes hand in hand with a more insidious form of contamination: that of the water and the soil.

Due to the impacts of globalization, fruits, vegetables, and agricultural products make it much further. In fact, even countries renowned for particular produce, such as Italian tomatoes, are increasingly using imports from China to cut costs, often without revealing the source to consumers.

So just how safe is produce from China? And how can consumers protect themselves and their families?

Contaminated Conventional Foods

Fresh Produce Poisoning
Illustration – Shutterstock | zimmytws

While American consumers often hear about scandals in China related to tainted food items or dangerous additives, such as counterfeit baby formula or expired meat being repackaged and sold as fresh, these stories usually focus on what’s happening in China itself.

But people in the United States might not know just how much of the food they eat comes from China and how problematic food safety is there. Even if an authentic, unadulterated product is being sold, it could be contaminatedin a variety of ways.

Many parts of China don’t have proper sewage infrastructure, leading to potential fecal contamination in vegetables. In addition to this, contamination from industrial sources, such as dangerous chemicals or the runoff from factories, are flushed into rivers.

Illustration – Getty Images | STEPHEN SHAVER

This means that vegetables might be irrigated with water containing poisonous toxins. Studies published in The Guardian showed that 20 percent of China’s farmland has dangerous levels of demonstrated pollution.

Given all these dangers, it’s no wonder that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has frequently rejected shipments of fruits, vegetables, meat, and fish that didn’t comply with federal regulations.

In one case in 2016, a ship carrying catfish turned back to China rather than face inspection in the United States. It’s likely the shipping company knew the fish were contaminated and wouldn’t pass. With a track record like this, many people will want to avoid conventional food imports from China entirely.

Illustration – Getty Images | Cancan ChuIllustration – Getty Images | Cancan Chu

Organic Foods

Organic Foods
Illustration – Getty Images | ROBYN BECK

If consumers should avoid conventional foods from China because of the risk of contamination, will organic be any better? At least in theory, organic produce should not be treated with pesticides, nor should the plants be given artificial fertilizers. The entire growth process should be natural.

But should is the keyword! Remember that organic certifications vary from country to country, with some being stricter and others more lax. As it stands now, the USDA and China’s Ministry of Agriculture do not have an agreement on what defines “organic.”

When you’re looking at produce, make sure it has the USDA organic certification or the Chinese “GreenFood” certification, which focuses on good agricultural practices that avoid contamination. These foods are most likely to be safe.

Organic Foods02
Illustration – Getty Images | Justin Sullivan

Wash and peel

Wash and peel
Illustration – Shutterstock |

Regardless of how well the food is certified, you always, always need to properly wash your fruits and vegetables. The Food and Drug Administration advises the following steps to make sure you remove any contaminants.

1.Rinse produce BEFORE you peel it so dirt and bacteria aren’t transferred from the knife onto the fruit or vegetable.

2.Gently rub produce while holding it under plain running water. There’s no need to use soap or a produce wash.
Use a clean vegetable brush to scrub firm produce such as melons and cucumbers.

3.For produce with skins, especially those that are on the “Dirty Dozen” list and tend to receive the most pesticides (even natural, organic-approved ones) such as apples, nectarines, peaches, pears, and potatoes, be sure to remove the peels.

As you would expect, the skins are where any possible contaminants will be concentrated. Be sure to wash your hands and your peeler as you do this to avoid spreading the risk. Also, if you’re using citrus to put in dishes or drinks, remember to peel first before juicing to make sure that toxins on the peels don’t get in what you’re cooking or drinking.

Wash and peel
Illustration – Pixabay | Peggychoucair


Illustration – Pixabay | Free-Photos

Last but not least, it’s especially important to steer clear of Chinese seafood given the massive pollution of its rivers, lakes, and seas. A great deal of inexpensive seafood in American stores comes from China and might contain toxic chemicals ingested by the fish or crustaceans.

Illustration – Pixabay | PublicDomainPictures

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