MICHELE NORRIS, host:
There have been several scares about imports from China in recent weeks. There was the pet food, which contained the industrial chemical melamine. That was followed closely by stories about tainted toothpaste and seafood and toys. These and other developments have had many people wondering about the safety of imports especially the ones we eat.
NPR's Adam Davidson reports.
ADAM DAVIDSON: I wanted to look at the ingredients in one of those frozen prepared meals, the kind that come in a box. So I asked my colleague, Margot Adler, what she was having for lunch.
MARGOT ADLER: Ah, Weight Watchers, and this is Ravioli Florentine.
DAVIDSON: On the box are really long list of ingredients - wheat, milk, sugar, salt and some weird stuff.
ADLER: Carrageenan. I've never heard of carrageenan. I have no idea, although, maybe does it come from carrots?
DAVIDSON: Actually, carrageenan is a kind of jelly extracted from seaweed. It's in lots of foods.
Heinz makes this meal by combining more than 50 industrial food ingredients. Each one of which has probably changed hands a dozen times on its way from the farm or the sea. Each ingredient is sold and then resold to a chain of distributors, exporters, importers, wholesalers before finally getting to Heinz. These 50 ingredients in this one tiny meal could easily have gone through 500 different suppliers spread all over the globe.
So to trust that this meal is safe, you have to trust 500 different companies. None of which you've ever heard of. Let's go to one of them.
Woodland Foods is in Gurnee, Illinois just outside of Chicago.
Mr. PAUL SUHRE (Product Manager, Woodland Foods): It smells just like a Middle Eastern market.
Mr. SUHRE: You have mushrooms, mushroom powders, herbs and spices - all kinds of stuff like that.
DAVIDSON: Paul Suhre is product manager here. Woodland Foods is the nation's leading wholesaler of things like dried mushrooms, chilies, beans and spices. They sell to most major food manufacturers and to a lot of restaurant chains. They get their ingredients from 45 different countries.
China is the number one source as Ally Suhre(ph), plant manager, told me.
Ms. ALLY SUHRE (Plant Manager, Woodland Foods): This is a product that just arrived this morning.
DAVIDSON: It looks like dried mushrooms?
Ms. SUHRE: Yeah. Champignons.
DAVIDSON: Before the mushrooms enter the warehouse, John Cruz scoops some into a small plastic bowl.
Mr. JOHN CRUZ (Purchasing Manager, Woodland Foods): I'm actually pulling a sample to get to the quality assurance department. And in that way, they can test the product to make sure that it's good - not infested or anything.
DAVIDSON: The FDA only tests about one percent of food imports.
(Soundbite of shaker machine running)
So Jerry Cruz, the staff microbiologist, heads a team of inspectors who test everything - every single box, bag or crate of ingredients - right here.
Mr. JERRY CRUZ (Staff Microbiologist, Woodland Foods): This is to the quality assurance lab. We can do some microbiological tests, standard plate count, chloroform used in mold.
DAVIDSON: A shaker machine sifts dried products to make sure there's no foreign matter. Some food is sent to an independent lab nearby for more advanced tests like recently after the pet food scare.
Mr. JERRY CRUZ: We actually went through all the list of products from China, and we took basically our top 10 and say, okay, what are the issue? What could be the issues of these products? And so we sent them out for heavy metal testing, pesticide testing, and melamine testing.
DAVIDSON: There were no problems. Cruz, in fact, is just back from a trip to China where he was inspecting suppliers. This safety obsession is a basic necessity if Woodland wants to sell to big food companies, Suhre says.
Mr. SUHRE: They go so far as to take trips with us to our suppliers.
DAVIDSON: These are big Fortune 500 companies that'll…
Mr. SUHRE: Right. Correct. They are basically telling us, hey, we want to know where you're getting this from. And they're really, really tough on us.
DAVIDSON: Heinz recently inspected Woodland's plant. Most big food companies run safety audits of all their suppliers, Cruz says. That's why he doesn't worry about the food he buys in the supermarkets. He knows that any recognizable brand has rigorously vetted every one of its suppliers. And it's not just big companies.
Frontier Soups is just down the road in Waukegan, Illinois.
You're Trisha Anderson?
Ms. TRISHA ANDERSON (Owner, Frontier Soups): Yes. Good morning.
DAVIDSON: Good morning. This is your company?
Ms. ANDERSON: Yes. It is.
DAVIDSON: Frontier makes high-end dried soups.
Ms. ANDERSON: We turn to Woodland knowing that they have top quality products.
DAVIDSON: Almost every day, some food suppliers she's never heard of calls Frontier's purchasing manager, Eva Pantoja, and offers to send a shipment of, say, black beans or lentils, really cheap.
Ms. EVA PANTOJA (Purchasing Manager, Frontier Soups): And then they offer you this incredible price and they're wanting to offload, you know, 7,000 pounds at once. But they don't give you any guarantee of how long they've had the product.
DAVIDSON: Many say these low-end ingredients brokers are the scourges of the industry. They were behind many of the recent Chinese product scares including the poisonous toothpaste and the possibly defective tires.
As a rule, experts say, these suspicious products go to cut-rate restaurants and deep discount stores. They rarely go to established brand name companies.
So the food in any brand name supermarket is very likely safe to eat. At least in the short run, you still have to worry about all that sodium and fat.
Adam Davidson, NPR News.