Following the Food Chain

I am not always the most attentive shopper. I’ve a tendency to grab items at random off of the shelves, rarely, if ever, managing to remember to check provenance to make sure that my picks have come from a local producer whenever possible. I try to assuage my guilt by telling myself that buying most of my fruit, veg and meat from independent local producers is good enough, but occasionally reality jumps up and says “not so fast”.

Take the long distance snow pea fiasco. You know what snow peas are, right? Those little flat pea pods used in asian cooking. I like to throw them into my stir frys for some crunch, when they’re not too pricey. Lately, the one market I shop at for staples has had little packets of snow peas for just ninety nine cents.  That’s a great price for a veggie that usually sells locally for $2.99 per pound, so I’ve been grabbing packets whenever I shop in this store.

A few weeks ago, I found one of these snow pea packets in the bottom of what I fondly refer to as “the crisper of doom”. It’s where good lettuce goes to die a slow, watery death when I periodically decide that making salads is the devil’s work, and instead live off of coffee and cheetos for a week at a time. Then, overcome with guilt and feeling deservedly despicable, I clean out the crisper, moaning about how, if I only had a pig, none of this expired produce would be wasted.

Buried under the semi liquid lettuce and the lonely avocodo that was developing its own eco system was the packet of snow peas – still bright green, fresh looking and apparently untouched by age or decay. Odd, this, because snow peas, while hardy, and not exactly indestructible, or at least not in my previous experience. I pulled the packet out, and finally had a good, hard look at its contents and its labeling.

Turns out that my ‘reasonably priced’ snow peas faced a long journey to get to the bottom of my crisper – they were imported. From China. I took a look at Google maps, and it seems that this is a trip of about 19,000 kilometres (part of which Google suggested I accomplish via kayaking across the Pacific).

19,ooo kilometres, to sell a .99 cent package of snow peas. The economic math just doesn’t seem to add up, does it? Apparently, though, it does – this is a fast moving item at my local grocery store, and I’ve seen the same snow pea packets at a few other stores, as well.

Then there was the pickle conondrum. Shopping at the same market, I was perusing my shopping list and noticed we needed pickles. Around the next aisle was an end cap display of  “Farmer’s Pride” baby dill pickles, on sale for just $1.59. A good price, even though I’m usually a name brand pickle type of girl, so I grabbed a jar. It wasn’t until I was home that I took a good look at the label, and realized that “Farmers Pride” had come to me all the way from India (about 18,000 kilometres, and Google had no suggestions for methods of crossing the ocean).

Snow peas, at least, are neither breakable nor heavy. You can jam a lot of packets of snow peas into a single crate, or so I’d assume. Pickles? Not so much. Glass breaks, and has to be packed with care. Shipping a load of fragile glass jars of pickles across an entire ocean and two continents would seem to be a journey that would involve more than a dollar sixty price tag. I’ve bought imported food stuff from India before – curry sauces and chutneys – and I don’t remember ever paying less than $5 or $6 per small jar.

Again, the economic math doesn’t seem to add up – but to the producers in India and China, it certainly seems possible to make a profit shipping goods all the way around the world to North America, even if they’re cheaply priced goods.

The same profit margin applies to pet food ingredients. Years ago, I would have laughed at the idea of a pet food company finding it cost efficient to get their animal meals and proteins shipped all the way from China. Now, however, we know that this is standard operating procedure at more and more North American manufacturers.

Take the salmonella outbreak recently reported on in the American Journal of Pediatrics. The article says, in part, that the salmonella strain responsible for the illnesses and deaths was Salmonella Schwarzengrund.

I’m not up on my Salmonella strains, so I googled around to find out some more about, and discovered this, on the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics website:

Salmonella schwarzengrund (strain CVM19633) is the predominant cause of salmonellosis in Southeast Asia, a major source of imported food products to the United States

The Journal of Pediatrics article says that the Salmonella Schwarzengrund outbreak they studied was traced back to a single (un named) pet food manufacturer and plant. There is never any mention of where the original plant contamination was traced to, but I have to wonder – were they using imported animal proteins, and in particular, were they using animal proteins imported from Southeast Asia?

The big question for consumers who do pay attention to labeling becomes “how do we know?”.  How do we know if the pet food we’re buying contains imported ingredients? The short answer seems to be “we don’t”. Labeling on consumer goods, pet food included, is frustratingly oblique.

A food that is made entirely of cheaply imported ingredients can still be labeled “Made in Canada” or “Made in the USA”, so long as those ingredients are combined and turned into the end product in the named country. Worse still, food can be made in an entirely different country altogether, and still be labeled “Packed in the USA”.

The closest definition I can seem to find applies to Canada, and refers to the labeling term “Product of Canada”. In this case, the CFIA states that for the label to be accurate, the following conditions must apply:

A food product may claim Product of Canada when all or virtually all major ingredients, processing, and labour used to make the food product are Canadian. This means that all significant ingredients are Canadian and non-Canadian material must be negligible. Ingredients that are present in a food at very low levels and that are not generally produced in Canada, including spices, food additives, vitamins, minerals, and flavouring preparations, may be used without disqualifying the food from making a Product of Canada claim.

The issue, again, is that there can still be ‘other’ ingredients from outside Canada – and even then, there’s no real regulation of the way this labeling must be applied to pet food, since the pet food industry in Canada is entirely self governed.

In the US, pet food labeling is jointly overseen by the FDA and by AAFCO. There are numerous labeling laws in place, but NONE of them cover details of where the ingredients within the pet food were sourced from.

As consumers, it seems we’re on our own with this one when it comes to pet food. We can ask the government to step in, but ultimately it’s going to be on us to try to make sure we know not just where our food was made, but where the ingredients it contains have come from.

Start by contacting the pet food company you use. Ask them simple, clear questions – do you import any of the animal protein ingredients in your food? Starches? Other ingredients? Most companies will answer these questions truthfully – it’s not worth the lawsuit to lie to a single consumer. If a company can’t answer your questions, ask them to have someone call or email you who can.

If a company won’t answer your questions, take that as a “yes”, and choose to buy from someone else.

Finally, if all else fails, do what so many of us have chosen to do – and make your own. Just make sure the read the labeling on the ingredients you choose to put into it.