Thanksgiving dinner is not what it used to be. Historians say that for the first Thanksgiving meal, wild turkey shared the spotlight with lobster, clams, oysters and an eclectic assortment of traditional European and indigenous foods. In the 19th century, when the holiday spread from New England through the rest of the country to help promote national unity on the brink of the Civil War, main dishes included ham, coleslaw, and stewed prunes – a far cry from what we think of today as traditional fare.
As we entered the Industrial Age, homemade ingredients were increasingly replaced by heavily advertised convenience foods: instant potatoes, refrigerator rolls, canned and frozen fruits and vegetables. Today, while the casseroles and side dishes you’ll be eating on Thanksgiving Day may be based on similar recipes of those you grew up with, you might be surprised to learn that many of the ingredients for this treasured American holiday meal are actually grown and processed in foreign countries – from China to Latin America – where food safety and labor laws are weak and regulatory oversight is lax.
So, what Thanksgiving favorites traveled the longest distance to get to your dinner table? Take your average green bean casserole – one out of six packages of frozen green beans are imported, often from countries with lax pesticide laws. In 2008, dozens of Japanese consumers were hospitalized after they ate frozen green beans from China contaminated with pesticides. Also, three out of four dried or canned mushrooms you add to that casserole and more than half of the processed garlic on grocery store shelves have been imported. Over half of those mushrooms and 93% of that imported garlic have traveled all the way from China.
Even the fresh fruits and vegetables that make up your autumn feast are being imported in larger numbers every year. Apple imports rose 65% between 1993 and 2007 and potatoes that used to be grown in Idaho, Maine and Oregon are being replaced by those grown in Canada – one out of every 11 potatoes is imported and the same is true for carrots.
With this deluge of imports coming to our shores, it’s little wonder that government food inspectors are completely overwhelmed and only get around to inspecting about 2% of imported produce and processed foods. Which means the remaining 98% goes directly to grocery stores shelves uninspected.
Since joining the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, China – a country with a notoriously terrible record for food and consumer product safety – has quickly become a major supplier of food ingredients consumed by Americans.
China’s most infamous example of toxic food happened a few years back when the chemical melamine, commonly used in plastic and glue, was found in the milk products of such well known brands as Mars, Heinz and Cadbury. Melamine can have serious health effects, particularly in children. When combined with other elements, melamine can form crystals that can interfere with proper kidney function and, in severe cases, even cause death. There are also well-documented cases of food from China having unsafe drug residues.
What’s even scarier is that, until recently, food imports didn’t need to be labeled, so consumers had no way of knowing where their food was actually grown and processed. After many years of public outcry, mandatory country-of-origin labeling for meat, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, and several kinds of nuts finally went into effect in 2008 – despite repeated attempts by the food industry to kill the program and delay its implementation.
This basic right – to make informed choices about where your food is from and how it was produced – is still very much under attack. Just last week, the WTO announced that part of the United States’ requirement for mandatory country-of -rigin labeling of food violates international trade law. The WTO should not get to decide what US consumers do and don’t get to know about their food. Hopefully President Obama and our other elected officials will stand up for our right to know where our food comes from and appeal the WTO ruling on country-of-origin labeling of our food.
While this may not stop risky foods from crossing our borders, it will help give us information about the food we’re putting on our plates on Thanksgiving and year-round.