Tighter Food Rules Stem China's Garlic Exports

Last year, for the first time, garlic imported from China sold more in the United States than garlic grown in California. Now, tighter food safety standards imposed by the Chinese government have severely curtailed the country's garlic exports.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Now, an update to a story we first brought you three months ago about a trade battle in the produce aisle. Last year for the first time, garlic imported from China outsold domestic garlic in the United States. Now, there's worry that China has put the breaks on garlic it exports out of concern over its reputation for food safety.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: So far there haven't been any recalls of Chinese garlic, but the Chinese government is still nervous. After a ginger recall in July and well-publicized problems with pet food ingredients and children's toys, China's government has sharply curtailed garlic shipments from Shandong Province until packers there can show they're meeting higher safety standards. Before the crackdown, China had been exporting more than $10-million worth of garlic to the U.S. every month.

Los Angeles importer Zia Fetahi(ph) says it was wise for China to interrupt that flow while rebuilding its damaged reputation.

Mr. ZIA FETAHI (Importer, Los Angeles): They have come to their senses in a sense. They cannot continue with the bad publicity. For them, I think, it's very important and the right thing to do.

HORSLEY: Fetahi says the crackdown has not yet triggered a shortage of Chinese garlic since there was plenty in cold storage manned in transit. But that could change if the export restrictions continue. Even before the crackdown, Fetahi says some supermarket chains had begun to express a preference for California-grown garlic, boosting prices of that domestic garlic by as much as 40 percent from a year ago.

Bill Christopher, who runs the biggest garlic-packing house in California, says he hasn't seen those higher prices. But he says buyers are showing more interest in where their garlic is grown.

Mr. BILL CHRISTOPHER (Owner, Christopher Ranch): We're getting a lot more questions asked by our buyers about the differences between Chinese and California, and just that interest is good. I think, you know, we'll end up with a nice season this year just because people are more aware.

HORSLEY: Even as they wanted to, California growers could not quickly replace the Chinese imports since the size of next year's California crop is limited by the volume of seeds raised this year.

Scott Horsley, NPR News.

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