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Chinese Apple Juice Imports Causing Concern

December 8, 2007

While it may seem as American as apple pie, much of the apple juice filling those juice boxes and jugs on U.S. grocery shelves comes from China.

Over the past 10 years, China, which produces up to 65 percent of the world’s apples, has become the top supplier of concentrate used in apple juice sold in the U.S., contributing more than 40 percent of the juice consumed here, compared with 22 percent from domestically produced apples, according to the U.S. Apple Association trade group.

Both U.S. producers who use the foreign concentrate and fruit trade groups say the individual companies and the federal government insist that suppliers follow strict safety standards. Several firms said they also have auditors test the imported juice as well as conducting their own tests.

No warnings

It’s important to note that there have been no major warnings about China-produced juice as there were earlier this year about toys from China, tainted toothpaste and pet food.

Still, some consumers are registering concern with juice makers and on Web sites. And others simply do not know that the juice they’re giving their families comes from China.

“Do most consumers know? Right now, probably not,” said Michael Hansen, senior scientist for food safety with Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports magazine. “It would probably surprise people.”

Count among the unaware Garland resident Kathleen Brooks, who was taken aback when a Dallas Morning News reporter pointed out the “concentrate from China” stamp on the Kroger brand juice she had put in her cart.

“It would definitely make a difference knowing that,” said Ms. Brooks, who was buying juice for her 16-month-old granddaughter. “I’ll probably just buy a different flavor, like white grape or peach,” she said as she placed the apple juice back on the shelf.

As a matter of fact, American consumers, especially those with young children, have been drinking juice from Chinese concentrate for years.

The amount of apple juice concentrate pouring in from China skyrocketed from only 4.5 million gallons in 1996 to 249.54 million gallons in 2005 — 55 times as much — according to figures from the Apple Association. Last year, the U.S. imported 225.54 million gallons from that country.

The juice is most often shipped to the U.S. as concentrate, with water and packaging added here.

Some consumers became wary of Chinese goods this summer, after a steady stream of news reports ranging from toothpaste tainted with diethylene glycol (or DEG), a poisonous chemical used in antifreeze, to lead paint on toys, to pet food containing melamine, an industrial chemical.

Thursday, consumers were told to avoid still more Chinese toys because of lead-based paint.

There have been no such warnings related to juice, but nervous consumers began phoning some of the top U.S. juice makers this summer, representatives said.

Many store brands use apple juice concentrate from China, as do well-known names such as Motts, Tree Top, Welch’s and Tropicana.

(Both Tropicana and Plano-based Frito-Lay Inc. are owned by PepsiCo Inc., of Purchase, N.Y.)

Tropicana received calls from consumers this summer asking about juice from China, said spokesman Peter Brace. He put the number at “less than 1 percent of total calls.”

The “key driver” for sourcing juice from outside the states is “seasonality and availability,” he said. He declined to discuss the relative costs of Chinese- vs. American-produced concentrate.

In August, blogger S. Neil Vineberg, who runs a public relations firm in West Hampton, N.Y., took his thoughts about Tropicana’s use of Chinese juice into cyberspace, launching an e-dialogue with like-minded consumers.

Mr. Vineberg said he wrote to Tropicana asking them to discontinue the use of Chinese apple juice concentrate and “suggested … consumers might stage a boycott of Tropicana products.”

His blog has generated dozens of postings, but there has been no boycott, and Tropicana remains one of the top-selling brands.

Kimberly Rawlings, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, cautioned consumers against guilt by association.

“You can’t make the assumption that just because a country has one thing that’s problematic that every product that country has is problematic,” she said, adding, “China is not the only country we’ve issued import alerts from.”

‘Heavily regulated’

Carol Freysinger, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Juice Products Association, called fruit and vegetable juices some of the “most heavily regulated foods in the U.S., subject to many levels of quality control by both individual processors and the federal government.”

Production of juice to be sold in the U.S., whether foreign or domestic, must adhere to strict regulations referred to as “HACCP” ( Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point), one of the FDA’s most stringent set of rules.

Some shoppers try to avoid foreign-made foods for reasons beyond safety, such as concern about “food miles,” said Mr. Hansen of Consumers Union, referring to concerns about the energy used and environmental impact of shipping food long distances.

And, he said, “they want to be supportive of American products.”

America is still home to acres of apple orchards. But growers, seeking top dollar, most often bypass the juice market, choosing instead to sell their fruit to the fresh and processed markets, which pay more.

U.S. growers, for the most part, “don’t go out with the intent of growing juice apples,” said Jim Cranney Jr., vice president of the U.S. Apple Association based in Vienna, Va. “If you’re looking at things from a grower’s perspective, you want to produce the things that will produce the most revenue for you.”

Between 1991 and 2006 the price growers received for juice apples fell by 41 percent, to $96.40 a ton, according to the USDA.

“Juice apples have really been a salvage market for domestic producers,” Mr. Cranney said, explaining that discolored or misshapen fruit winds up there.

Many apple industry insiders argue that U.S. juice prices fell so far because of the flow of concentrate from China.

In the 1990s, the U.S. apple industry launched an anti-dumping case against Chinese suppliers before the U.S. International Trade Commission and the Department of Commerce.

Ultimately, duties up to almost 52 percent were assessed on some Chinese producers, while no duties were imposed on others.

As a result, the juice from China continued to flow, eclipsing all other sources. Now, there is no longer enough U.S.-made juice available to supply American bottlers, even if tomorrow they decided to forgo Chinese shipments.

Reading the labels

There are U.S. juices and ciders without foreign concentrate — but determining the contents in a brand of juice can be challenging.

Since a 1986 court case, federal law has required U.S. companies that add only water to foreign concentrate to list the concentrate’s country of origin.

But, for example, the printed labels on bottles of Tree Top apple juice, marketed by Tree Top Inc., in Selah, Wash., boasts of “fruit we’ve grown ourselves,” and “sharing the pure taste of our Washington orchards.”

In less-obvious type, on the plastic bottle, is the phrase “Conc from USA China.”

A spokeswoman for Tree Top declined to comment, and company executives did not respond to e-mailed requests for information.

Likewise, apple juice labels from Motts LLP, part of Plano-based Cadbury Schweppes Americas Beverages, speak of “our apples” that are “hand-picked … putting little between the orchards and you, the way you trust us to.”

A careful observer might also see “Conc. From USA, China and Argentina” stamped on the side of the plastic bottle.

The country of origin information is “inkjeted on the bottle because we can change it more quickly when the countries of origin change,” said spokesman Greg Artkop, explaining why it is not printed on the label.

He also noted that the company uses a mixture of foreign concentrates and “millions of cases of apples each year from U.S. apple producers.”

There is no requirement for where on the package the information must be placed, only that it be legible and in English.

That can lead to a “Where’s Waldo?”-type search — contributing to some consumers’ frustration.

“I think it’s an important issue and at least consumers should be informed,” said Mr. Vineberg. “And then they can make their own personal choices.”




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