Observing China's Garlic Growers
Pundit’s Mailbag — Eye-Opening
Visit To China’s Garlic Growers
More Food Safety Lessons From Chinese Ginger Recall
brought an important letter from a person with much experience in
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
See recent article in Business Week
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
— 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
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,
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
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,
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
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
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
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.