When I was studying at university, I worked at a small Italian grocery for a few years and one of my jobs was to make sure the fruit and veges section was well stocked.
My boss was a decent guy who taught me plenty, and most of what he sold was quality, but he never had a good word to say about the garlic on his shelves.
“It’s from China, it’s cheap, and they bleach the life out of it to make it white,” I remember him saying. It was lifeless and not very pungent.
The bleaching of garlic was done with chlorine.
Now, years later, I’ve just come across what the Australian Garlic Producers have to say about the Chinese product, which is what most people are now buying.
“In China, chemicals banned in Australia are still being used to grow garlic. Australia imports 95 per cent of our garlic from China. Chinese garlic is gamma irradiated to prevent sprouting and is also sprayed with Maleic Hydrazide to extend shelf life. All imported garlic is fumigated with Methyl Bromide by AQIS on arrival in Australia,” the Australian Garlic Producers said on their website.
While I was tending to the shelves at the Italian grocery, there were a lot of small local garlic growers going out of business. The hurt had begun for the once healthy Australian garlic industry when cheap imports first arrived in the mid-1990s.
There were some gasps of despair about the Chinese garlic juggernaut, and even a few reports in the press like one from 2005 that quoted Henry Bell, executive officer at the Australian Garlic Industry Association.
“I know for a fact that some garlic growers over there use raw human sewage to fertilize their crops, and I don’t believe the Australian quarantine regulations are strict enough in terms of bacteria testing on imported produce,” Bell told The Age.
The situation with garlic in the U.S. is similar. California used to produce nearly half of America’s garlic, but much of it has been neutered due to cheap imports from China, like many other things. Around 50 percent of the garlic consumed in the U.S. is now from China.
Overall, China now supplies 80 per cent of the world’s garlic.
Food safety in China
When it comes to food exports in general, you probably already know that China doesn’t have a real good track record for safety.
And there is no easy fix.
“Addressing safety risks associated with these imports is difficult because of the vast array of products from China, China’s weak enforcement of food safety standards, its heavy use of agricultural chemicals, and its considerable environmental pollution,” said a report by the United Sates Department of Agriculture in 2009.
I have no reason to doubt that much would have changed recently, and reports like the one below by Al Jazeera keep coming out about modern China’s downright scary food safety issues:
If you had time to watch the above report, you’d appreciate how serious the issue is within China itself. Each time I go back to Australia, I see the lifeless bleached garlic at the supermarkets, but I’ve also seen some retailers carrying locally grown garlic when in season.
There’s also the popular farmer’s markets as well where consumers can buy local produce from organic farmers like Green Heart Organic Garlic, as pictured below, with a quality crop of bulbs.
So there is a resurgence of sorts, and there are alternatives. Remember, buy local.