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The Trump administration imposed new tariffs this weekend on more than a hundred billion dollars' worth of Chinese imports. The targets include chocolate, sweet biscuits and chewing gum. The import taxes highlight the evolution in the kind of products China sells to the world. NPR's Scott Horsley reports on America's growing appetite for food from China.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Maybe it's no surprise that China exported $89 million worth of green and black tea to the United States last year. But apple juice - yeah, almost $300 million worth. The U.S. also imported nearly $400 million worth of frozen tilapia from China. And in case the fish was a little bland, we also bought $43 million worth of Chinese garlic.
Agricultural economist David Ortega of Michigan State University says China has grown into the third-biggest supplier of foreign food to the U.S., behind Canada and Mexico. So when the trade war turns into a food fight, the indigestion cuts both ways.
DAVID ORTEGA: It's not just American farmers that are missing opportunities to send products to China, but then we also have farmers in China whose livelihood depend on products coming here. And likewise, we have, you know, consumers on both ends that are being affected in terms of prices from these tariffs.
HORSLEY: Much of the food the U.S. buys from China requires labor-intensive processing, giving the country's low-wage workers an advantage. China's emergence as factory to the world is well-known, but its growing importance as farmer and fishmonger gets less attention.
Tony Corbo, who's with the environmental group Food & Water Watch, says it's easy to overlook the Chinese peas and spinach in the frozen food aisle or that river of Chinese apple juice.
TONY CORBO: Not only are you talking about the juice itself as a commodity, but apple juice is used as a sweetener in all sorts of other foods.
HORSLEY: China's still recovering from a series of food safety scandals more than a decade ago involving tainted baby formula, toothpaste and pet food.
Darci Vetter, who was the chief agriculture negotiator for the U.S. Trade Representative, says since then, the country has imposed more rigorous oversight.
DARCI VETTER: China has tried to respond by really upgrading its food safety laws and changing its food safety regime. That's still something that's a high priority for them.
HORSLEY: Many Americans are still wary, though. During the George W. Bush administration, the U.S. opened the door to cooked and processed chicken from China but only if the birds themselves were raised in the U.S., Canada or Chile. Corbo says only one shipment ever made that circuitous journey.
CORBO: Why did the chicken cross the Pacific twice? It was - 110 pounds was exported to the United States, but that's been it because it caused such a big controversy at the time.
HORSLEY: Gavin Gibbons of the National Fisheries Institute says a lot of tilapia makes the opposite journey, raised on a fish farm in China but exported to be cut and packaged in this country.
GAVIN GIBBONS: That's something that fuels jobs here in the U.S. It's facilities in Minnesota and Pennsylvania and Ohio and Illinois that do that.
HORSLEY: Gibbons says by relying on farm-raised fish from China, Midwestern processing plants can operate year-round without overfishing here at home. But fish imported from China is already subject to a 25% tariff, and that's set to go to 30% next month. Gibbons says that makes it hard to compete with domestic chicken, beef and pork for Americans' dinner plates.
GIBBONS: When it comes to seafood and tariffs, you know, we are really collateral damage in this trade war, and we get hit coming and going.
HORSLEY: America's lobster fishermen have already been feeling the pain of China's retaliatory tariffs for more than a year now.
Darci Vetter, the former trade negotiator, worries much like the food safety scandals of a decade ago, the trade war will do long-lasting damage in both China and the U.S., leaving a bad taste in consumers' mouths that no amount of imported chewing gum will take away.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.
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