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TODAY contributor
updated 11/29/2007 8:00:44 AM ET 2007-11-29T13:00:44

As many of you already suspect, I have a very cool job. But one of the best things about it is the way I start each week — talking to my friend Whoopi on her radio show. Even though she makes me wake up at 2:30 a.m. to be on the air at 3:30 a.m. Pacific. I suppose that’s why the show is called “Wake up with Whoopi.”

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As I’ve shared with her and Cubby Bryant (her co-host) the situation that surrounds our imported foods from China, I can “hear” the smoke coming out of her ears. And rightfully so.

She will not accept the fact that our imported foods aren’t labeled. Nor will she accept the fact the one of the reasons that we are having so many of the food imports from China being recalled for food safety problems is about the American shoppers’ demand for cheap food prices. And mostly, she will not accept the fact that it appears that very few people who are in our government or who run our food companies are actually trying to change the situation.

On Sunday, Chinese food company representatives met in Beijing to discuss food safety and quality control issues. The topline was that over 400 of them agreed in person, fax and phone to publish a written pledge to improve their production processes, raw materials, and quality assurance programs on the production of toothpaste, seafood, eggs and vegetables.

In the first six months of this year, sales of Chinese-produced foods topped $173 billion dollars, up 30 percent from 2006 (to put that in perspective, Nestle, the largest food company in the world, had in 2006, 12-month sales of almost $75 billion, and Kraft, the second-largest, reported $35 billion).

China’s volume was produced by almost 450,000 food companies, so it would seem that a logical next step is to have the remaining 449,600 sign the same pledge.

Most American shoppers had no idea to the extent that the foods on our local supermarket shelves rely on China’s exports for either ingredients or whole foods (like produce) until the headlines over the past 18 months. And while you might think it's all about low-cost goods, I was recently sent bottles of “premium” 267 Infusions brand vodka and tequila to taste-test. Examining the designer bottle, I found the words “Bottled in China.” It is sitting on a shelf unopened, even though the company is touting their high-profile celebrity clientele.

If you think my friend and I are over-reacting, think again. In a four-month Chinese government product quality campaign that included their new food inspection labeling requirement, the government filed 626 criminal cases over substandard food and drug practices. Here in the U.S., China tops the list of countries that export products to our shores that are rejected by the FDA. The reasons? According to FDA reports: filth, misbranding, mislabeling, presence of unsafe color additives, poisonous additives, meat products from animals that died other than by slaughter and items prepared in unsanitary conditions.

So what products are we stocking our supermarket shelves with that come from China? Well, in addition to pet foods, Chinese foods are on almost every shelf, either as an ingredient or as a packaged product; bean curd, catfish, produce, apple juice, pork, chicken, teas and vitamins.

“Vitamins?” she asked. “Would you be surprised to know that China is actually one of the largest producers of drugs and vitamins? And that they produce between 80 and 90 percent of all vitamin C sold in the United States, about 50 percent of the world's aspirin and a majority of vitamins A, B12 and E?”

And then she asked me again, “And why aren’t all these products labeled where they come from?”

Phil Lempert is food editor of the TODAY show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to phil.lempert@nbc.com or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at SuperMarketGuru.com.

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