Despite China’s continued aggressions toward the United States and its allies, trade with China actually increased last year. American consumers rely on many Chinese imports, particularly tech products, toys, video game consoles, lithium batteries, pharmaceuticals, and plastics. 

And now, Americans are increasingly eating food imported from China. In fact, in 2022, China was the third largest supplier of agricultural products to the United States, $200 million of which is canned fruits and vegetables. These Chinese products are hitting store shelves at a much lower price point than domestic canned products. According to the Washington-Oregon Canning Pear Association, canned peaches and pears imported from China are sold at half the price of American grown peaches and pears. 

You might ask, “So what’s the problem? Aren’t we all for competition in the marketplace which leads to lower costs for consumers?” 

That’s true but here’s the catch. Chinese products don’t have to meet American safety standards, labeling requirements, nor U.S. labor practices, all of which increase the costs of production for American companies. This puts domestic canners and farmers at a disadvantage because they can’t compete against Chinese companies with lower production costs. 

Some might respond to that by saying the American government should simply reduce the number of regulations American companies face. I’m all for that, but it isn’t easy to change the regulatory structures currently in place. And even if it was, would Americans get behind such a proposal? Americans like to know their food is safe and was produced by workers who are treated fairly. 

It’s also worth examining if Americans even know they’re eating food imported from China. While federal law mandates country of origin labels on food items, the writing is often very small, making it difficult for people to see. And these labels aren’t required on items purchased online. 

To remedy that particular issue, last month, Republican Senator J.D. Vance and Democrat Senator Tammy Baldwin introduced the Country of Origin Labeling Online Act, which would require e-commerce retailers to disclose a product’s country of origin to consumers. 

Vance remarked about the bipartisan bill: “The American people deserve to know where the products they buy are made, regardless of whether they’re shopping in-store or online. Our legislation would close a legal loophole by extending current, commonsense labeling requirements to e-commerce. With this proposal, we can give American consumers the confidence that their online purchases support American workers and industry.”

Baldwin echoed Vance’s comment, saying, “Whether we buy things online or in-store, Americans have a right to know if the product they are purchasing was made in America, by American workers. I’ve heard from Made in Wisconsin businesses across the state who work hard to innovate and create new products, only to have cheaper, lower quality imitations sold online with no requirements to identify themselves as foreign-made.”

That’s a good first step to informing consumers about the food they consume, but more work needs to be done to shed light on the work conditions and safety requirements in China’s food processing industry.

This is the first in a series of posts on China’s food imports.