DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
The Food and Drug Administration has begun stopping imports of farm-raised seafood from China. The fish will be held until it's tested and found to be safe. The FDA acted after finding some Chinese seafood contained low levels of chemicals used to control microbes, which are not authorized in the U.S. It's the latest in a series of problems with Chinese imports from children's toys with lead paint to tainted ingredients in pet food.
So far, China has not been a major exporter of human food to the U.S. but one item in the grocery store that is likely to come from China is garlic. That's worrisome to the California town that's become synonymous with the pungent plant.
From Gilroy, California, NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY: This year's garlic harvest is still a few weeks away in Gilroy. Long-time grower Bill Christopher squats at the edge of the field and uproots a bulb that's been ripening underground.
Mr. BILL CHRISTOPHER (Garlic Grower): This (unintelligible) still has a little ways to go.
HORSLEY: Before long, hundreds of workers will be busy hand-trimming garlic bulbs of their roots and stems. The population of Gilroy will more than double in the last week in July when the town hosts its annual harvest festival eating, drinking and stinking of garlic for three straight days.
(Soundbite of music)
HORSLEY: At the Mama Mia Restaurant, organizers have gathered to sample some of the festival foods - garlic bread, garlic French fries, calamari and garlic sauce. Past president Gene Saakahara says both garlic and Gilroy have come a long way since the first festival almost 30 years ago.
Mr. GENE SAAKAHARA (Resident, Gilroy, California): I worked when I was in college at the processing plant, so it's hard to have repeat dates because you smelled like the garlic. We've come from the stinking rose to now a world-famous festival.
HORSLEY: This year's party features a Garlic Idol singing contest and an "Iron Chef"-style cook off dubbed the "Garlic Showdown." The real showdown facing the Gilroy industry, though, is with garlic growers across the ocean.
Imports of cheap Chinese garlic have surged in recent years, and Americans have snapped it up to fill their growing garlic appetites. Last year, for the first time, garlic imported from China outsold garlic grown in California.
Mr. MICHAEL COURSEY (Trade Lawyer): This is, in essence, the second tidal wave - the real tsunami of Chinese garlic.
HORSLEY: Trade lawyer Michael Coursey says the first wave came in the early '90s, when China was found to be dumping garlic on U.S. docks below cost. China was slapped with a hefty tariff, which kept the garlic at bay for a few years. But since 2001, imports of Chinese garlic have multiplied 15-fold, while California production has shrunk. Coursey thinks garlic is just the beginning.
Mr. COURSEY: We're talking about garlic. It isn't Airbus. However, it's a paradigm of what is going to happen in agricultural trade from China in, you know, seemingly more important products if something isn't done.
HORSLEY: Since Chinese imports first appeared in the U.S., California's biggest packer, Christopher Ranch, has looked for ways to cut its own costs. Marketing boss Patsy Ross says garlic bulbs that used to be packed by hand are now weighed on a computer scale and sorted automatically into cartons based on their size.
Ms. PATSY ROSS (Marketing Expert, Christopher Ranch): The supper colossal and colossal, super jumbo, extra jumbo, jumbo and giant.
HORSLEY: Giant is (unintelligible)?
Ms. ROSS: Giant is (unintelligible).
HORSLEY: In a nearby shed, garlic bulbs are broken into cloves and peeled with a blast of compressed air. Customers seem to like the convenience. Peeled garlic has become the biggest seller for Christopher Ranch. And because the bulbs for processed garlic don't have to look good, they can be harvested by machine, which saves about 10 cents a pound. That helps, Bill Christopher says, but it's still not cheap enough to compete with Chinese garlic, which wholesales for about half the price.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER: They can peel garlic cheaper by hand than we can here with machines.
HORSLEY: I went to the grocery store last night. I found a little basket of garlic.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER: Yep.
HORSLEY: Do you recognize this?
Mr. CHRISTOPHER: Yeah. Actually, this is Chinese garlic and it's - this whole -we couldn't buy the wicker basket for what they're selling this for here.
HORSLEY: California garlic producers continue to fight Chinese imports with tariffs. But they're also hoping new found concern with the safety of Chinese imports will encourage more consumers to buy American.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER: Between the toothpaste and the dog food and children's toys, safety and food safety is not a top priority in China. Word is, here in the United States, so if you want to have something you know is safe, you need to buy from this area.
HORSLEY: Of course, California produce caused its own share of food-borne illnesses last year. But the FDA is considering extra scrutiny of food imports from lightly regulated countries, like China. California growers also hoped to convince price-conscious shoppers that their garlic has more flavor.
I decided to test that claim with Executive Chef Bernard Guillas of the Marine Room Restaurant in San Diego. In an effort to be fair, I first peeled the cloves to remove the telltale root fringe that distinguishes a California bulb. But Chef Bernard still new right away which garlic was which. The Chinese cloves are bigger and slightly spungy, while the California cloves are compact and firm.
Mr. BERNARD GUILLAS (Marine Room Restaurant, San Diego): This garlic reminds me of my grandmother's garden.
(Soundbite of chopping)
HORSLEY: Chef Bernard chopped the garlic, mixed it in the bruschetta and finally sauteed it with tomatoes and shrimp. Then he tasted a forkful of the Chinese garlic.
Mr. GUILLAS: You have a very, very light hint(ph) of garlic. The tomato really are now dominating the garlic and said to be in synergy with the garlic.
HORSLEY: Then it was the California garlic's turn.
Mr. GUILLAS: That's a big difference. That's a big difference. Wow. It's much more pronounced than with the Chinese garlic. California garlic rocks.
HORSLEY: Most American shoppers don't share the chef's professional palate, which is why supermarket shelves are loaded with Chinese garlic. But Bill Christopher hopes there are enough consumers willing to pay extra to preserve California's shrinking share of the market. Christopher actually expects to plant more garlic this coming year than he did last. And he promises the Gilroy Garlic Festival isn't going anywhere.
Scott Horsley, NPR News.
ELLIOTT: We can't give you a taste of California garlic but there are photos to whet your appetite at npr.org.
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