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Avoiding Chinese food products nearly impossible

  • Story Highlights
  • Sara Bongiorni and her family tried to avoid Chinese products for a year
  • She found the source of food products the most difficult to discover
  • USDA: 50 percent of apple juice in U.S. comes from China
  • Expert says U.S. companies need to better police the products they bring in
  • Next Article in Living »
By Jennifer Pifer
CNN
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(CNN) -- Few people read labels as closely as Sara Bongiorni. For a year, Bongiorni and her young family tried to go without buying anything produced in China. No shoes, no toys, not even mousetraps.

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Sara Bongiorni says finding food products that don't contain an ingredient from China is nearly impossible.

The Baton Rouge, Louisiana, mother of three wasn't trying to make a political statement. She just wanted to see if it was possible to remove "Made in China" products from her home.

"It was a way to try to understand in a very real and personal way my own family's connections to this big fuzzy concept of the global economy, and specifically to China," she told CNN.

The experiment started soon after Christmas 2004 as she sorted through gifts and wrapping paper. Looking around the heap of goods, she realized almost all of it came from China.

"I thought, you know, it would be fun just to see if we could go a whole year ... without China," she said. "It certainly took over our whole life. It became an all-consuming project."

It was tough at times. Like when 10 months into the project, she caved into her 4-year-old son who "fell head over heels in love with a Chinese-made electric pumpkin."

But the one area that posed an unexpected challenge was grocery shopping. She says it's almost impossible to tell which foods have ingredients from China. Video Watch grocery shopping with Bongiorni »

"As much label reading as I did, there's no way I could know whether or not I was buying something with ingredients from China," says Bongiorni, who documented her experience in a book, "A Year Without 'Made in China.' "

Across the nation, Americans have begun taking a more critical look at where their food comes from, especially food from China. A recent USA Today/Gallup poll found 46 percent of those polled are "very concerned" about the safety of food imported from China; another 28 percent said they were "somewhat concerned" about Chinese food products.

The amount of food imported from China has grown dramatically in the past decade. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the United States imported $4.1 billion worth of seafood and agricultural products from China in 2006. In 1995, it was $800 million.

In June, the United States banned five types of fish and shrimp from China because inspectors found traces of cancer-causing chemicals and antibiotics in the products. See products that have been affected »

'Made in China' products

The following are among the top food products from China brought into the United States:

• Apple juice

• Mandarin oranges

• Confections/candy

• Dried garlic

• Cocoa butter

• Hog guts, bladders, stomachs for sausage casings

• Dry berries

Source: USDA

The United States requires labels on seafood to mark where it came from. However, that's the exception. With most foods, companies are not required to label where ingredients come from, only where the food was packaged or processed.

That means it is possible a frozen dinner, for example, could have 20 different ingredients from 20 different countries, food analysts say.

Michael Doyle, the director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, says the pet food recall earlier this year from a tainted Chinese ingredient, followed by the seafood ban, has brought renewed attention to "our potential issues with our food safety regarding Chinese imported foods." Watch strapped FDA only inspects 1 percent of incoming goods Video

"The Chinese have a long way to go to bring their standards up to ours," he says.

Doyle says it's incumbent upon food companies in the United States that bring food from China to be more vigilant about inspecting the products they bring in to "ensure that their foods are safe."

Some of the food products that come from China may surprise you. Take an American staple like apple juice. The USDA says 50 percent of the apple juice imported in the United States today comes from China. That's an estimated 161,000 tons of apple juice compared to the 110,000 tons produced in the United States, according to the USDA.

Garlic and pine nuts are also big exports. So are instant coffee and dried berries like the ones found in breakfast cereal. Test your knowledge on Chinese goods in the U.S. »

So, can you avoid eating foods with products from China?

Experts say that is pretty much impossible. You can lower your chances of eating foods with Chinese products by staying away from all processed foods and eating fresh "whole foods," such as fruits and vegetables. Many grocery stores are beginning to label where their fruits and vegetables are grown.

Eden Foods, a provider of organic food in the United States, says the number of calls from customers asking for country of origin information has doubled in the past few months. Tonya Martin, a spokeswoman for Eden Foods, says the company foresees a day when it will change labels to indicate where each ingredient in a product comes from.

As for the Bongiorni household, there no longer is apple juice in the refrigerator, but she does buy cereal with freeze-dried strawberries -- potentially from China -- for her children.

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"It's interesting," she says, "you know the source of your tennis shoes, but you don't know the source of your processed foods."

She adds, "You are really at a loss to make an informed decision." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Elizabeth Cohen and Rachel Zelkowitz and CNN.com's Wayne Drash contributed to this report.

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