Chinese mushroom scare: how safe are imports?

Posted by Nicole Eckersley on 16th December 2010

Vegetable industry peak body AUSVEG has expressed its concern about the level of vegetable imports from China, following reports by the Agence France-Presse from China of the discovery of mushrooms with unsafe whitening agents that can cause health problems including liver damage and skin allergies, uncovered by an 11-year-old school boy from Beijing and since verified by the China Agricultural University.

“This is yet another food safety incident in China that heightens our ongoing concern with the regulation of food production in that country. The reported discovery of these chemicals on Chinese mushrooms is particularly concerning, given the increasing level of imports making their way from China to Australia,” said AUSVEG Communications and Public Affairs Manager, Hugh Tobin.

“Overall vegetable imports from China have risen sharply over the past five years. Imports have increased from $54 million in 2005/06 to $96 million in 2009/10. The rise in imports from China is an alarming trend, when you consider that in that time there have been a number of serious food safety incidents in that country.”

“Fresh vegetable imports from China increased from $1 million to $18 million between July 2008 and June 2010. What’s even more alarming, however, is the evidence from our counterparts in New Zealand, that many Chinese products are being imported into Australia via New Zealand in order to mask their origin,” said Tobin.

“Clearer country of origin labelling that is enforced by a national authority is required in order to stop misleading acts such as this and ensure that Australian consumers are fully informed when they purchase vegetable products at the supermarket or the greengrocer,” he said.

According to AUSVEG, the overall trade deficit for vegetables remains negative at $306 million, meaning that Australia still imports significantly more than it exports. Despite vows from Chinese authorities to fix up the food industry in China and put to rest safety concerns, Tobin said that AUSVEG remained deeply concerned that standards expected of Australian producers were not being met by the Chinese.

“It’s important that we have some level of parity when it comes to quality assurance and safety concerns, including chemical residue testing. If we can’t ensure that international growers are meeting those requirements then we should be asking ourselves whether we want to continue to trade in those products,” Tobin said.

In Australia, the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service tests only five per cent of shipments coming into Australia for chemical residues.

“Not enough is being done to ensure that imported products meet the standards to which Australian primary producers must themselves adhere to in a domestic setting. It is clear that AQIS need to be doing more inspections,” Tobin said.