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Forget America’s iconic snacks. Forget the supermarket mountains of Lays, Coca-Cola, and Oreos. Forget the brainwashing snack commercials I watched every afternoon on Nickelodeon as a kid. For as long as I can remember, my sister and I have both agreed that Asian snacks reign supreme in taste and quality, especially compared to their American counterparts. My sister and I would go on what became our sentimental snack safaris, waltzing down the aisles of Nijiya Market, a supermarket in the heart of San Francisco’s Japantown, mesmerized by rainbows of flavored treats and charming Hello Kitty and Pikachu packaging. We always picked up the largest basket at the front of the store, knowing we would bring it back overflowing with spicy curry instant noodles, thin nori strips, and strawberry Pocky.
The one obstacle between our basket and the cashier was our mom. Before we could line up at the register, she would prod our basket and pick out snacks she had not seen before.
“Girls, this is ‘Made in China.’ Can you try to find another snack?”
On command, we sulked back to the aisle and scoured for alternatives. Our mom would approve of any snack Made in America whereas anything made in Japan, Indonesia, or any other Asian country would prompt another round of awkward questioning. I now wonder as a third-generation Chinese American if my friends had similar experiences when purchasing Asian snacks. I also wonder if scrutinizing food labels for its country of origin is just another facet of American culture my parents had adopted.
My mom is not alone. A 2015 Consumer Reports survey reported that eight in 10 Americans prefer American made goods over foreign products. What’s more, they are willing to dish out more money, 10 percent to be exact, for these American goods. The trustworthiness of American products even extends to foreign countries. In a 2017 Nielsen report, an overwhelming majority of Chinese and Taiwanese consumers preferred foreign-based commodities to local goods.
When it comes to country of origin labels, China faces the harshest scrutiny. In a 2010 CBS News article titled “Made in China = Piece of Junk,” author Geoffrey James sharply criticizes his defective purchases from China. Shortly after, he praises the longevity of his child’s toys from Ohio. James shares a belief held by many Americans: that “the entire United States is flooded with low-quality, poorly-manufactured crap made in China.” In the same spirit, Peter Navarro, a Huffington Post columnist, has curated a list titled “Six Great Reasons to ‘Don’t Buy Made in China’ This Holiday Season.”
The media tends to fixate on manufacturing scares in China. In 2008, many were mortified when inspectors discovered melamine, a chemical used in plastic, in the popular white rabbit candy. The Chinese government, equally alarmed by this scare, deployed thousands of inspectors to the factory sites. Despite this rapid and thorough response, this incident continually gets referenced as China’s manufacturing downfall by critics like James and Navarro. Most media outlets, including The New York Times, have also continued the trend of exposing the many risks of Chinese manufacturing rather than its economic benefits and cleaner than perceived standards.
Countries have even found ways to obscure China’s country label. Fearful of isolating customers like my mom, Japanese manufacturers changed labels from “Made in China” to “Made in the PRC” (Public’s Republic of China). While many of these reports and responses raise an alarming truth, the emphasis on China as the chief offender draws attention away from other countries with similarly lackluster standards.
The origin of food labeling dates back to the mid-twentieth century. According to the Tariff Act of 1930, manufacturers must list their products’ country of origin to pass customs. Specifically, retailers had to include the phrase “Made in” on every food package they sold. More recently, under The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002, the government required that retailers generate country of origin labels (COOLs) for beef, lamb, pork, and fish and eventually nuts and perishable produce. As COOLs gained universal traction, consumers took notice.
While obsessing over COOLs can be valid, they of course do not reveal a product’s full story. A product’s origin does not ensure a higher standard of food safety. Additionally, processed products with ingredients from multiple countries cannot be summed up in one COOL. Labeling presents one source of knowledge, but it cannot provide all the information a consumer needs to make an informed choice.
Harmful stereotypes about certain countries that extend beyond the food industry can also influence how people categorize food and snacks. Throughout history, people have perceived the Chinese government as corrupt with scanty regulation. As a result, people view Chinese products as insufficiently supervised and inferior. With the rise of the Chinese economy, other countries may galvanize a sense of nationalism or xenophobia by avoiding Chinese products. With its negative image perpetuated in media by critics, China has unjustly amassed an image of a complacency and poor quality manufacturing.
Leaders in China nonetheless want to improve manufacturing in all sectors, including food. With the launch of “Made in China 2025,” Chinese companies have implemented production cycles rooted in quality rather than quantity. With some exceptions, “Made in China” products are no longer synonymous with low-quality goods, as evidenced by the rise of tech companies Huawei and Xiaomi and other luxury brands. Unfortunately, this ascent has been overshadowed by people’s initial perceptions of China.
In the Asian supermarkets, my mom taught me to deeply care about and question food safety, counterfeit goods, and nutrition. For that, I am grateful. But I have come to acknowledge that COOLs do not provide a full picture of a product’s inputs. We should enter Asian supermarkets cognizant about food safety, but it’s unfair to avoid eating white rabbit candy just because it says “Made in China” — you would be missing out.
— Contributing writer Jess L. Eng’s column, "Takeaways From Chinese America," wrestles with the possibilities and boundaries of food culture from a third-generation Chinese American perspective.
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