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Food Security

Cheap food imports undermine local producers

Cheap imports are a worrying sign for Germany's local produce industry. Rival foreign producers deliver food from countries with low labor and production costs, and the local industry finds itself unable to compete.

Locally produced sausages, asparagus and beer are all products typical of Germany's array of fine cuisine.

But along with traditional German food and beverages, an increasing assortment of imported goods can now be found in any number of Germany's discount supermarket chains, fruit and vegetable shops and corner stores.

The low cost of importing foodstuffs from overseas is an economic boost for retailers - they are able to offer cheap, imported products, even when produce is not in season locally.

But underselling local producers with cheap imports puts local industry at risk, says Anke Klitzing, spokesperson for Slow Food Germany.

For locals involved in the produce supply chain, from truck drivers to farmers, overseas imports are ruining years of hard work and established businesses.

"If more foods were to come from local and regional sources, then this would, for one, benefit the local economies. More money would stay in the region, creating value and employment," said Klitzing.

Trend driven by consumers

Woman working in a rice field (ddp images/AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

China is one of Germany's main import sources

However, money is not the only driving force for German producers competing with cheap imports. The quality of the end product which makes its way to the consumer's table is also of great importance, says Klitzing.

"The value of buying local or regional food is not only about the economy. Shorter distances from the farm to the table means produce can be harvested closer to peak ripeness, when it is most nutritious, because it does not have to withstand extended transport and storage."

Germany is not alone when it comes to importing food which can just as easily be produced on home soil. Increasingly more westernized countries are choosing to import frozen or processed foodstuffs from countries like Thailand, China and Nicaragua because of the markedly cheaper costs.

Klitzing says this trend is being driven by consumers. "A large part of the food system, particularly production, processing and distribution, is heavily market-orientated and guided predominantly by concerns about price," she said.

"Food, like any other commodity, must be cheap."

Growing industry 

Despite an increase in global fuel prices, shipping and general overheads, a spokesperson from the World Trade Organization (WTO)  told DW that it is often still less expensive to import from countries where labor is cheap and production costs are low. 

China is one such example. Employees earn 0.93 to 1.86 euros ($1.20 to $2.40) per day working in fruit and vegetable fields - far less than the 110 euros a day earned by workers doing a similar job in Germany.

China is one of the fastest growing sources of food imports globally, and was the biggest source of imported goods to Germany in 2011.

Close to 9 percent of the Germany's imports, the World Bank reports, came from China last year, and 7 percent of that consisted of foodstuffs – namely, rice, tinned foods and frozen fruits.

Imported goods

Another example is strawberries. Although Germany is among Europe's major strawberry producers, cheaper imports of the fruit are being shipped from China, the world's second-largest producer of strawberries.

Strawberres. (Photo: Bernd Thissen dpa/lnw)

Food safety is up to individual countries to regulate

Frozen fruit is sold for much less than is demanded by local farmers who are unable to compete with the cheap operating and labor costs of their overseas rivals, says Klitzing.

By freezing the strawberries, Chinese producers are able to make them more compact and less fragile, and thus easier for global transport.

German consumers, however, have become critical of cheap foreign food imports in recent weeks, after an outbreak of the norovirus was traced back to frozen Chinese strawberries which had been brought into the country.

The illness, the largest food-caused incidence of gastroenteritis in Germany to date, affected some 11,000 students across five eastern German states, according to the WTO. Several critics have pointed to lax enforcement of food safety standards in China as the reason for the virus' outbreak.

Food safety laws are not uniform across international borders, despite the flow of goods across them, says Jan Kleinheisterkamp, a senior law lecturer at the London School of Economics, in an interview with DW.

"The problem is that in China, it is Chinese law governing," he said.

Food regulation

But the onus of ensuring food safety standards are met lies with the country receiving the goods and the companies importing and distributing the food, according to the WTO.

"It's about identifying the problems that can affect your food and preventing them from happening," said Peter Ben Embarek, a food safety scientist with the World Health Organization. "This is a specific process every producer of food must apply."

As well as self-regulated industry testing of imported foodstuffs, an official from the German Office for Consumer Protection and Nutritional Safety confirmed to DW that state monitoring does occur "in addition" to that undertaken by import companies.

The food preparation company Sodexo, which served the contaminated strawberries to the German schoolchildren, issued a statement offering an apology for the incident but blamed one of its subcontractors for the outbreak.

Affected students will be compensated, according to the company, as prosecutors begin an investigation into the exact cause of the virus in the imported strawberries.

DW.DE