Two weeks ago I wrote a post about finding healthy food at the dollar store. Readers both on the blog and on Facebook seemed to be concerned about the quality of food sold at dollar stores, or other similar reduced-price shops. Mainly, they were concerned that the food was coming from China.
They raise a very valid point. We should absolutely be concerned where our food comes from! So I did my due diligence. I went back to my local store, plus another dollar store in a nearby city (but a different chain), so I could flip cans around and turn over packages and see for myself just where exactly my food was coming from. The results?
Does Your Food Come From China?
Yes. But it also comes from Guatemala, Mexico, Vietnam and the United States… plus any other country that is exporting to the United States.
I don’t know if that helps at all, or just make matters worse.
There’s one side of the argument that says you should know exactly where your food comes from. To grow your own garden, shop at local farmers markets and shake hands with farmers that are within x-amount of miles from your house.
But here’s the thing: I have NEVER seen a local farmer sell bananas. Or limes, sweet corn, mangoes, coconuts or pineapples. I probably never will.
And I live in a part of the country where YOU likely get a big portion of your produce!
As a society, we’ve grown accustomed to being able to buy whatever food we want, whatever time of year we want. We plan our meals around this privilege and have thrown caution to the wind with regards to the true origins of our food. The fact that 50% of our fresh fruit, 20% of our fresh vegetables and 80% of our seafood are imported should speak volumes! The vast majority of consumers don’t care where our food comes from, as long as it looks pretty and is affordable.
And I’m just as guilty as everyone else!
The bananas in my kitchen? Some are from Ecuador, some from Guatamala and some from Mexico. I think I’ve even seen some from Venezuela before too.
I doubt the oranges I bought yesterday from the local Asian market are really from California, and the shrimp in my freezer are probably from Vietnam.
However, if we want to complain about our food being imported, then we shouldn’t complain about not having strawberries when the ground is covered in snow. We shouldn’t plan to make roasted butternut squash in May and expect to find a juicy grapefruit in Minnesota when it’s the middle of November.
The only way we can enjoy the luxury of eating what we want, when we want, is if out of season foods are imported from another region, where they are currently being grown and harvested because they are in season – there. If you’re willing to give up the indulgence of bananas year-round, then by all mean, support the United States economy and buy food grown and harvested in the United States.
However, the mere fact that food is grown in the United States doesn’t make it safe. Case(s) in point:
- ConAgra Foods Inc. is a US-based company and in 2005, they recalled their Peter Pan peanut butter because it was reported to have caused salmonella poisoning.
- Ready Pac, another US-based company, has been questioned regarding their spinach and green onions causing E.coli breakouts.
- The two largest suppliers of honey have been charged with illegally importing honey from China, and selling it as raw and processed harvested from the United States.
- In 2007, China sent back shipments of Sun-Maid Golden Raisins (exported by by US-based SuperValu) because the amounts of bacteria bacillus, fungi and sulfer dioxide did not meet their standard sanitary requirements. This was right after the China General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantines division officially banned ConAgra’s Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butters for the same salmonella concerns originally poised in 2005.
- South Korea has rejected US beef merely because of the fear of mad cow disease – without any actual confirmed cases!
Mr. Crumbs and I have discussed not buying food from China, but hearing these type of reports on food grown in your own country kinda makes me think twice about blaming China. In reality, the United States isn’t any better.
And we’re not alone.
In 2006-2007, the United States Department of Agriculture rejected 1,901 shipments of food and cosmetics from China. They also rejected 1,787 of shipments from India and 1,560 from Mexico that same year.
(India is known for exporting rice and cashews. Mexico tends to export produce that grows best in warm and tropical climates like tomato, avocado, broccoli, mango, pineapple, lemon, asparagus, eggplant, peppers and squash.)
So three of the major countries whose food our country imports have been rejected because their shipments are not up to our standards. Seriously, what are we supposed to do?
I wish there was a simple answer to this question, but there isn’t. How you all decide to purchase your food is going to look different for every family, for every budget. Some of you will continue to buy foods as if they never read this post. Some of you will be more diligent about visiting farmers markets more often. Some of you might even pick up the phone and actually call those farms you’ve seen listed on EatWellGuide.org or EatWild.com.
Whatever you decide to do, here’s what I’ve learned from this little rabbit trail of healthy food from the dollar store:
1. Always, always, ALWAYS read the label.
Foods should say either “made in” or “grown in” or “imported from” or “product of” and then a country. Know what country it is and be okay with your purchase.
Some foods simply say “distributed by” and then list a company. If that’s the case, you’ll need to research where that company sources its food from.
2. Frozen foods are more likely to be imported than canned, boxed or packaged.
I found frozen strawberries, frozen broccoli, frozen potatoes and frozen seafood from other countries. Most canned, boxed and packaged foods were from the United States.
Note 1: This doesn’t mean ALL frozen foods are imported, nor ALL canned, boxed and packaged foods are safe.
Note 2: When I say canned, boxed and packaged foods, I am referring to those that which are REAL FOOD, i.e. canned tomatoes or packages of rice or bags of beans. This is NOT your free-for-all to start eating processed foods.
3. Don’t assume entire brands are safe.
While browsing the aisles at the dollar store in a nearby town, I realized that the store had it’s own generic brand. Package after package I turned around, only to find them all from the United States. I thought that brand was “safe,” that anything from that brand would be originally from the United States and not imported. Wrong. Nearly everything from that brand in the frozen section was imported.
4. Start local.
Instead of turning to the local grocery store, first consider starting your own garden. Then consider your local farmers market. Talk to the farmers about where their harvest comes from. If you don’t see what you’re looking for at the market, ask a vendor if they know someone (i.e. another farmer) who can help you. Stop at road-side farm stands. Get to know your neighbors and see if they’ve found any hidden market gems. Look into local fishing and hunting and take matters in your own hands!
The One Baby Step I’m Making From This Research Experiment
I’ve decided to set aside $10-20 each week for shopping for fresh produce from the farmers market. My goal is to keep as much of my produce local or semi-local (i.e. within a 2-3 hour driving radius), with an exception or two. Here’s the plan:
- Continue to buy organic carrots, organic celery and organic baby kale from Costco. All three are coming from cities in California in the radius mentioned above.
- I will continue to buy other items at Costco that are not quite local, but are still close enough. Onions and potatoes are currently coming from Idaho.
- We love bananas for both taste and frugality. I don’t expect to ever find them truly local, so I will continue to buy from my local stores (although the fruit itself will be imported).
- We’re big on apples, but they’re very seasonal. I plan to make sure they’re grown in the United States.
- All other produce we buy each year will be from the farmers market.
- We’re no longer buying farmed seafood (a decision in the making, but now it’s official.)
I think this is a good plan, one that is attainable without us overspending our budget or spending too much time about the origin of our foods. After all, we all have to do what we can with what we have, right?
How do you feel about your food coming from overseas? Does it bother you? Why or why not?
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I know this is an old post so I’d be interested to hear what your views are on this now.
This was a really interesting post to read from the outside looking in simply because the US is one of the countries my country is very apprehensive about importing foods from due to the problems you have with food safety. For the past 20 years we’ve had under 10 outbreaks of E. Coli, Salmonella, Botulism, listeria and similar. Most of these happened because of imported goods. That includes all “voluntary recalls”. In the US you have whole government websites dedicated to logging recalls. It’s basically unheard of here. That’s not to say people never get sick, but 9/10 times it’s because of handling, not problems with the meat/produce/etc.
We are basically self-reliant here in seafood, which the exception of certain types of shrimp, octopus and such, and those are very expensive due to the very strict rules regarding import. 98% of all meats here are from this country and you have to clearly mark meat that isn’t. This is true for restaurants as well. Importing meats and dairy products is so expensive and time-consuming it’s not really something that’s done for anything except certain specialty cheeses (in some boxed products you can find milk and eggs with origins from other countries but I’ve never in my life seen milk or eggs sold in the store as is from on another country. We do however import huge amounts of fresh produce. In part because people have gotten used to be able to choose exactly what they want on any given day but the other is that it simply isn’t feasible to grow everything you need for an entire country when your country is in the arctic circle (and because we have a 100% no GMO law here we basically don’t import from the US because you guys are sketchy on the honesty when it comes to produce, GMO and how it’s handled). It just doesn’t work. You do have to clearly label the country of origin though. All produce from this county is clearly marked as being so as well. Certain canned foods are allowed but again a lot of things that aren’t “local” (i.e from this country) end up being very expensive (If I were to buy an American, say, syrup I’d usually have to spend about $8 a bottle for a non-organic, nothing special syrup bottle. If I were to buy one from this country it’d be about $4). Of course this isn’t true for every single thing and certain countries we do import more heavily from and those become less expensive (Italy and France for instance) as well as certain things that import heavily because we simply can’t make it ourselves (think sugar, certain oils etc).
I have a couple US made things in my cupboard though: one can of pureed pumpkin that I bought for $8+ two years ago and haven’t gotten around to using. I also have some beans and bean flours that I just bought from Bob’s Red Mill (which cost and arm and a leg to import but that I do plan on imported again at another time) and a couple of spices and flavorings from Frontier Natural (which also cost and arm and a leg to import and because of former re-calls and the fact that they don’t iradiate the spices will only go into cooked foods).
Sorry for the long comment, food safety is just a big interest of mine!
I am late to this post, but I have many opinions on this. I read my labels and will not buy anything from China. This includes juice. The US actually does not make apple juice concentrate. If you ever read the labels in the juice aisle, you will see that it is all imported. (I only buy juice for parties or special occasions.) I am also really turned off my meat labels. I saw your label on Instagram. I have started to purchase most of our meat from a local company that gets all their meat from New England farms. It is not frugal, but it makes me feel better.
I really appreciate the research that went into giving a strong clarifying answer to the question, “What about China?” I found your blog while googling to do a little research of my own. I bought some pepitas on my lunch hour, and while snacking, noticed they came from China. I was stunned…again!
I’m one of the “dog owners” that found my dog sick in the latest round of dog food from China scares, and remembering that the country sold poisoned baby formula to its infants, I just have a strong negative reaction, even though, as you mention so accurately, we play fast and loose with our own labels and standards in the U.S. It can’t be denied!
I live in sunny Southern California and can eat almost entirely from fresh and local food, if I’m flexible enough, and yet even we are sold produce from Mexico. The competition escalates over price. So I pay more, by far sometimes, but feel a little more ethically aligned, and will eat as locally as possible. But every step of the way I wonder if I’m being “played” and simply giving in to my own biases, and very limited in understanding the big picture here.
You have definitely given me a lot to think about. Thank you. Debra
Dollar general canned carrots are from China.
Why oh why? Think of the carbon footprint and the (possibly) dirty water. Why can’t they source this simple product from the US? I would pay a little more…wouldn’t you?
Although not within a 2-5 mile radius we buy from Azure Standard as they provide Organic things and have apples that are the best ever, seasonal as you said. We like because apples are usually heavily sprayed (i actually could smell it on them from a chain store here so didn’t buy) and we prefer no chemicals.
Really enjoying your newly found site.
I’m glad you’re enjoying Nancy! Welcome to Crumbs!
I was surprised you never see sweet corn at your farmers markets, then remembered you’re in California. How sad! Fresh from the field corn just can’t be beat. Surely you can get other things we in the Midwest would consider exotic locally, though? Fruits, maybe? We get a lovely variety of produce here in Tulsa, but very little fruit of any kind, and rarely organic. A few farmers grow berries but they’re VERY expensive. Some peaches, pears, one person has grapes, and a decent number of apples–unless the weather, a pest, or disease hits any of those crops, in which case, nothing.
We might get some corn later this spring/summer, but it will come from inland a bit. I’m just not sure if it will actually make it all the way to the coast. My husband grew up on local corn and says it’s amazing. Jealous! We definitely get our fair share of exotic fruits. Avocados and artichokes are local to me, plus kumquats, pomegranates and all sorts of vegetable greens. Cherries and stone fruits are only an hour or so away too, so that’s a plus.
Local avocados and artichokes song HEAVENLY. And cherries! My dad’s family lives in Michigan, and when we visit in the summer there is local cherry EVERYTHING–fresh, jams, wine. To die for. 🙂
Where we live in CQ Australia we shop from local farmers as much as we can.local shops are often more expensive.I point blank refuse to buy imported fresh food stung too many times by poor quality. if I’m buying imported frozen its NZ or Europe.Having traveled and visited Asia and seen the way fish are farmed and the waterways I’m hesitant to eat any Asian fish.We keep tinned food to minimum though as I’m concerned about the leaching of the plastic lining into my food but that’s a whole other topic:)
This stuff is super scary to me. I’m all about local. It can be a budget buster, though. Have you heard about the TPP and the effect it will have on FDA (or lack thereof) regulations? Things are about to get even scarier.
I ALWAYS read labels & country of origin details. I like to eat local, then anything grown anywhere in Australia, then NewZealand, walnuts from USA. I am very wary of food grown in Asia so don’t buy them, especially fish. Another reason for buying food grown & produced in your own country (other than health & sanitary conditions) is we all have kids & families and they all need jobs. Love your blog Tiff, Marthea from West Austalia.
I’m really passionate about local foods. I agree with Xenia that having nutrient-dense foods, freshly picked, just can’t be beat! I love talking with my local farmers, knowing their farms, seeing their practices in action, sharing their passion for nourishing, sustainable foods. I belong to two CSAs, which provide nearly all of our vegetables for most of the year. I get my raw milk cheeses from a small farm 30 minutes away, my pastured eggs from a few blocks away, my meat from various local farm sources, and most of my veggies from the CSAs and farmer’s markets. We grow our own garden, too.
We recently moved from the suburbs to a rural area so we can start being as organic and local as we can be – – – growing a larger garden, planting an orchard and berries, and getting our fencing ready for livestock – chickens, dairy goats, a small family cow, etc. While getting all of this going, though, I’m trying to support the local farmers we know, learning from them along the way.
I agree, though, Tiffany, that it’s hard to imagine that, here in the Midwest, I’d have to forego bananas, avocados, coconut oil, coffee, Indian spices, and other things that are simply not grown here locally. I try to buy locally what we can, and I try to source the rest from good sources.
Michael Pollan and Joel Salatin have been very influential in our thinking about foods over the years, as well as Nourishing Traditions.
I appreciate your blog for touching on these issues. With a family of 11, I feel like my decisions about food have an impact on our economy and the food industry, even if only in a very small way. Thank you for continuing to educate me along the way!
I don’t live in an area renowned for being able to grow crops, but I grew up in Ohio & found farmer’s markets to be cheaper, usually, and the quality as good as or better than at the grocery store. Here, some people have small farms, but mostly people keep medium to large gardens and sell extra harvest at our open air market.
Have you noticed the Dollar Tree frozen vegetables taste like fish water ? This is not a good sign.
And it doesn’t have to be that way. Other canned fruits and vegetables from around the world are good.
As for their cheap fish fillets , etc…you know the meat is soaked in saline such that the filet weighs more. This is not good . Many meat producers use this practice to make more money and assist with preservation.
As for your milk….that no longer needs refrigeration…..a cows normal life expectancy…25 years. Today , a dairy cow will live 3-5 years. It’s the stress they are under…..it’s extreme. ‘Demand better food. Don’t let it solely be about profits.
Something along these lines that I’ve never resolved is canned salmon. I quit buying Alaskan Wild Caught Salmon after the Japanese nuclear disaster, after reports that the nuclear waste was washing up in Alaska and contaminating the ocean. All other types of canned oily fish (mackerel, ect) is from China, and I won’t buy that either. We eat very little fish, as a result, which worries me from a health standpoint, but I’m afraid some of the fish sources are more dangerous that not eating it! My husband is a fisherman, so we do eat local wild fish, but it’s not oily fish with omegas. We live smack dab in the Midwest, so even though I love seafood, it’s not local, and I don’t feel right about buying it. Any thoughts on canned salmon? It’s such a quick easy meal, and the health benefits are good.
I have tons of thoughts on fish in general Angie, but I haven’t quite wrapped my head around the entire issue. Like you, we eat little seafood (and likely less with the official no-go on farmed shrimp) so it hasn’t been much of an issue, but I’d like to incorporate more – but where to begin?! This is my thought for now: if we’re going to eat fish, it’s going to be wild caught and not farmed, and from a trustworthy source (i.e. Alaska instead of China). That’s about the extent of control we have. Whether or not the fish is contaminated from the nuclear fall out… or from an oil spill in the Gulf or from a weird disaster in the Atlantic – I can’t control any of that. And for all we know, our current “clean” fish could be just as contaminated, just without the official notices and fanfare. I figure draw the boundaries where you feel comfortable and leave the rest to God – who is sovereignly in control of it all anyway!!
I am not quite sure either but where I’m at in Alaska no one seems to be too worried, so our freezer is full of salmon that we eat weekly, and so grateful for. Also, I decided awhile back that we would focus on eating more organic and whole foods rather than worry about eating locally- we do eat as much as fish, but the area I’m in we can’t grow much veggies and fruit- we’d be stuck with berries and fish! 😉
Angie, I was also concerned about radiation in fish, and had read lots of conflicting information but nothing definitive. I wished I had access to equipment to just test the food for radiation! This article from Wise Choice Market finally set my mind at ease — they actually tested the actual Alaskan salmon they sell, and it’s fine. I think it’s safe to assume that all Alaskan fish is okay.
FOr me buying local has nothing to do with food safety, but with freshness. The only way to get fresh produce packed with the original nutrients is if it has been harvested recently. If it comes from the other end of the world, it won’t taste as good and it might not be as nutritious. (of course you can buy local produce that has been refrigerated, and that’s not ideal either…) IT is also true, that produce that has to go trhough lots of handling is usually harvested a little bit unripe, so that it doesn’t perish, and therefore it will be less tasty. So favouring local and in-season fruits and vegerables should be an important target for those who want to eat more real food.
Local food is definitely fresher – but we love our bananas!! 🙂