The Garlic Wars, Updated.

I adore garlic. And who doesn’t? Apart from my porridge and desserts (though I have made a garlic flavored ice cream in the past), it’s in everything I cook. I can’t tell enough you how incredibly healthy it is (perhaps you have read my garlic diaries, here and here). So, what’s up with this bulb? A garlic war on your doorsteps, no less. How so? Here are the stakes:

China’s total production of garlic is about 12 million metric tons per year, which accounts for almost 80% of world production, as per Wiki.  In comparison the US produces about 220,000 metric tons per year, or about 480 million pounds and it consumes about 300 million pounds of fresh or peeled garlic annually, and consumption is growing as garlic moves from a primary ingredient in many ethnic dishes to a mainstay in American kitchens and restaurants. The growing consumption would seemingly paint a bright picture for California garlic production, but the drop in acreage gives a clue otherwise. The reason: China.

Here’s the maths: China went from 50,000 pounds of garlic a decade ago to 12 million metric tons last year, flooding the market with fresh and dehydrated garlic. So what’s the problem, we’re getting cheap garlic. Well, yes, but much of the garlic exported to the U.S. and other parts of the world is dehydrated and may contain high levels of lead.

Garlic is a huge commodity in China and there are two distinct markets, one for fresh garlic and one for the dehydrated kind. Most of the raw material is processed at small factories that dry the garlic flakes and sell it to processors. There are also many small factories that grind the garlic flakes and then sell that to processors. As a result, the dehydrated garlic can change hands several times, making traceability difficult. And that is at the crux of the problem: how does one know if imported garlic has been dehydrated properly? Would you rather pay a few cents more for freshly grown garlic in your country or cut corners and buy the cheaper stuff?

In fairness, the Chinese government has attempted to consolidate food regulation with the creation of the State Food and Drug Administration in 2003, and officials have also been under increasing public and international pressure to solve food safety problems, but we did get the pet food scandals, the lead-painted toys, the melamine milk and quite a few others. I have no beef with the Chinese producers, I know that they will, in good time, resolve and bring the standards of food safety to the North American and European levels.

How to buy garlic: Choose garlic that has plump, firm bulbs. Look for bulbs with the roots still intact – imports from China often have the root shaved off. Avoid garlic that is soft or light in weight, as this is a sign of age or dehydration. Avoid garlic that is “sprouting,” as it can add a bitter taste to food.

For Christopher Ranch and California garlic growers, China is a nemesis. Full story in this link.

The Chinese are shipping fresh garlic into the U.S. at a cost of $12 to $16 per 30-pound box. It costs U.S. growers and packers $25 to $30 per 30-pound box. China grows two-thirds of the world’s garlic, mostly in small plots. Its fresh garlic is not as flavorful as California garlic, which is keeping California garlic in the marketplace against the cheap imports.

Chinese garlic is so cheap to produce that even smugglers make a load of money, see the story here

I always say: buy fresh, and wherever possible, locally.

This entry was posted in Environmental Issue, Food, Health and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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