The Orient Express Line: Reporter Finds It Hard to Avoid Products from China

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Whether U.S. shoppers are concerned about food and product safety, set on making a political statement against outsourcing or simply intent on showing a little patriotism, they’re sure to have a tough time avoiding products made in China.

Chinese exports have been in the spotlight since the deaths of dogs and cats in North America attributed to tainted Chinese wheat gluten, followed by this week’s recall of Chinese-made radial tires and an alert Thursday by the Food and Drug Administration warning about contaminated Chinese seafood.

My family hit some stores to see how hard it would it be for the average consumer to pull off a “Made in China” boycott — even for just a week.

My sons’ well-worn sneakers were starting to resemble sandals, so our family headed to the Empire Mall in Sioux Falls in search of a couple of cheap pairs to get the boys, ages 10 and 12, through the summer.

The quest began in the J.C. Penney shoe department. We soon found out this was going to be no easy task:

Adidas, made in China.

Sketchers, made in China.

Reebok, made in China or Indonesia.

We finally found three adult styles of New Balance shoes marked “Made in the USA of imported materials.”

We headed to a couple of other shoe stores — Famous Footwear and Payless — and found several other styles of sneakers mostly made in China and Indonesia.

Shopping for non-China-made groceries at our local Hy-Vee grocery store seemed less-challenging, but it turned out to be more of a case of blissful ignorance than well-informed consumerism.

Products in nonfood aisles communicated their origins better than their edible counterparts. Labels of Suave shampoo, Dial hand soap, Kleenex tissues, Ziploc bags, Solo cups, Bounty napkins, Tide laundry detergent, SOS pads and Dawn dish detergent all read, “Made in USA,” although none of the labels got specific.

Toothpaste was a bit more confusing — a concern considering that some brands made in China were recently found to contain a chemical called diethylene glycol, which is used to make antifreeze.

AquaFresh said, “Made in USA,” right on the box, but boxes of Crest and Colgate named only the companies that distributed the product, Procter & Gamble Co. and Colgate-Palmolive Co. respectively.

The labels on most food products we looked at were of little help.

The 2002 Farm Bill passed by Congress mandated country-of-origin labeling for seafood, beef, lamb, pork, fish, fruits, vegetables and peanuts, but the Bush administration has delayed its implementation for everything except seafood until 2008.

Some fruits and vegetables sported voluntary stickers, but shoppers should always consider the calendar when shopping for produce, as stores get a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables from Central and South America during winter months.

None of the sweets in the candy aisle said “Made in China,” but most are likely made with at least one ingredient from there, said William Hubbard, a former FDA official. Vanillin, carrageenan and gum arabic commonly come from Chinese companies, Hubbard said.

“The cocoa might come from another country and the sugar might be American, so you’re not going to get a country of origin on that product,” Hubbard said.

Chinese companies produce about 80 percent of the world’s wheat gluten, common in most breads, cakes and cookies, and 80 percent of its sorbic acid, a preservative used in just about everything, he said.

The toy aisle at Wal-Mart featured tons of products made in China, although the classic capitalist board game Monopoly is now “Made in the USA with dice and tokens made in China.”

With the Fourth of July approaching, I decided to check out Wal-Mart’s display of U.S. flags.

All were domestic, with the exception of one style made in China.


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