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By Tom Tobin November 9, 2007

Some bad apples

In an Oct. 29, 2007, speech at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., John Edwards said the government and business worlds are gripped by corruption and a lack of leadership. He focused in part on trade deals that he said help corporations at the expense of American workers and consumers. He said: "We have even gotten to the point where our children's safety is potentially at risk because nearly half of the apple juice consumed by our children comes from apples grown in China."

To put the number at "nearly half" is a stretch. Actually, about 38 percent of the apple juice consumed in the United States comes from China, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

When it comes to apple juice, the United States is the world's biggest importer and China is, by far, the biggest producer.

On average over the past three years, about 26 percent of the U.S. apple juice supply was produced domestically. The rest comes primarily from China, Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Germany, in that order.

China's 50 percent share of the U.S. imported supply is up tenfold from 1997. China has dramatically increased its apple production since the mid 1990s and today is the world's biggest exporter of apple juice thanks to low labor costs.

Demand for apple juice has hit record levels in recent years -- and not just because it's a popular kid drink. The product also is used in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.

Is Edwards right when he says children are "potentially at risk" from Chinese apple juice?

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He puts himself on reasonably safe ground, given recent problems with Chinese seafood, toothpaste, pet food and toys -- including the November 2007 revelation that a chemical coating used in the popular Aqua Dots toy turns into a "date rape" drug when ingested. A 20-month-old Arkansas boy who ate Aqua Dots beads vomited and went into a coma.

A November 2006 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides even more support.

The report states that China's food safety problems stem from the country's cumbersome infrastructure: 200-million farm households, each cultivating one to two acres of often non-contiguous land with no incentive under the Communist system to invest in improvements. Chinese farmers, the report says, are known for using high levels of chemical fertilizers to get the most out of their plots. Many use "highly toxic pesticides, including some that are banned in the United States."

As for China's food distribution system, it is "dominated by millions of small traders handling small volumes of product, often operating on a cash basis, with no documentation," the report says.

China is starting to overhaul its food safety system, the report says, but has a long way to go.

We can't rule this as True because his numbers are off, but his point about lots of our apple juice coming from China is true. It's also true that their safety standards don't meet ours. So, that's how we end up with Mostly True.

Our Sources

U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service, World Markets and Trade – Apple Juice," June 2007.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service, World Markets and Trade – World Apple Situation," May 2007.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research, Amber Waves, "Food Safety Improvements Underway in China," November, 2006.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service, Apple Juice: Production, Supply and Distribution in Selected Countries," July 6, 2007.

E-mail interview with Heather Velthuis, a USDA agricultural economist specializing in apples, pears and grapes.

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