The latest salvo comes from an organization called Americans for Wholesome Foods (AWF) which reports that up to 2,900-percent higher levels of lead, 2,840-percent higher levels of added sulfites and 586-percent higher levels of arsenic in low-price imported dehydrated garlic produced with an outdated process in which the garlic is dried over coal fires.

Poor growing conditions also play a likely role in the high contaminant levels in some imported dehydrated garlic, according to AWF.

Products tested included domestic and imported ingredients used in processed food products, as well as national-brand and supermarket-brand garlic powders. AWF based its report on independent testing of the products.

Imports of dried and dehydrated garlic products have increased dramatically since 1998 when disease devastated the California garlic crop. Last year it rose to 51 million pounds, up from 43 million pounds the year before. China accounts for 99 percent of those imports.

Domestic and imported dehydrated garlic produced with a modern drying process did not reveal detectable levels of lead and arsenic. Nor did these samples reveal unacceptable levels of added sulfites when tested with the method proposed by the U.S. government as better capable of detecting potentially harmful added sulfite levels, including those added with a direct-coal-fire drying process.

With exposure to various levels of lead, arsenic and added sulfites shown to cause immediate as well as cumulative health problems, the report characterizes the use of dehydrated garlic produced with the outdated direct-coal-fire drying process as an unnecessary short-term and long-term risk.

“Garlic dried over coal fires, and blends that include these ingredients, contain alarming levels of lead, added sulfites and arsenic. Given the numerous uses of dried garlic throughout the food supply and the negative health effects of lead, added sulfites and arsenic, consumers need to be aware of what they are eating”, said Darshana Patel, executive director of AWF. AWF is a coalition of businesses, organizations and individuals committed to empowering customers and consumers with actionable information regarding the consumption of wholesome food and beverages.

China produces 13 billion pounds of garlic each year. California now produces about 4.2 million pounds from about 25,000 acres valued at $140 million, down from a high of 7.4 million pounds from 40,000 acres worth $219 million in 1999. Much of this decline in acreage and value is attributable to illegally imported Chinese raw garlic and dehydrated garlic products.

Chinese raw garlic imports are subject to 400 percent antidumping duties, but California garlic producers contend that China is illegally transshipping its fresh garlic through countries like Thailand and Vietnam to avoid duty. Garlic from Pakistan, the Philippines and Uzbekistan are now also coming to the U.S.

The garlic business is nothing to sneeze at. Three years ago the federal government sentenced a Southern California man to 18 months in jail for circumventing $9 million in antidumping duties. Customs officials say that action did not stem the tide of illegally imported garlic and the practice continues to be a major problem.

This garlic is being imported to in the U.S. and sold at prices below the cost of production in California. Dehydrated garlic products are being sold in the U.S. at prices lower than what it takes California growers to produce the raw product.

There are no restrictions on dehydrated garlic imports.

The results of the product testing revealed high levels of lead, arsenic and added sulfites in two supermarket-brand garlic powders from store shelves. It is possible for such products to consist of blends including low-price imported dehydrated garlic from facilities using the coal drying process. If these products were tested by their manufacturers with the most conservative testing method, they should have been labeled as containing added sulfites under existing informal U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidance, according to AWF.

The results also showed particularly high levels of the contaminants in the imported garlic produced with the direct-coal-fire drying process and used as ingredients in value-added products. Two of the three imported garlic products dried with direct-coal fires contain levels of lead that would prohibit them from being sold in Europe because they exceed the European standard (one tested product by 500 percent and one by 300 percent). The United States does not have limits on the amount of lead and arsenic in dried garlic, though there is a level of added sulfites beyond which dried garlic is to be labeled as containing added sulfites. Under existing informal FDA guidance, two of these products should be labeled as containing added sulfites to be sold in the United States. However, it is not practical to test each and every ingredient, and there is not complete confidence that appropriate labeling is consistently applied.

“There are products being served to consumers today that contain unacceptable levels of lead, added sulfites and arsenic. Given uncertainties in science, it may be difficult for government agencies to write new laws or set new standards, particularly in a timely fashion. Yet consumers and companies can take action today on this new information,” Patel said.

e-mail:hcline@primediabusiness.com