China’s hold on the Garlic Industry

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Did you know that every year, humans consume 50 billion pounds of garlic? Funny, because I was pretty sure that’s what I consumed alone. Man, I love garlic. It’s a staple ingredient in my household. We love flavoring our foods with it, plus it helps lower cholesterol levels, regulates blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Added bonus: I told my kids it keeps the vampires at bay. As a result, my four-year-old requests garlic bread on a fairly regular basis. Look for my future blog on other tricks that keep spooky things away.

I was looking forward to learning more about this spicy bulb in the next installment of Netflix’ “Rotten” series. The documentary introduces garlic as the sexiest ingredient in almost all cuisines these days. It really started coming into fashion in the late 1970’s. By the 90’s, more and more celebrity chefs were using it as a key ingredient in their recipes. And today, garlic generates $40 billion in global revenues a year. You’d think it’s a very good time to be in the garlic business. Or is it?

This episode doesn’t necessarily focus on the quality of the product we’re eating very much, which was disappointing. More than anything else, it exposes the inner workings of the garlic industry, suggesting it operates like a cartel. You learn that China grows 90 percent of the garlic eaten around the world. It’s the lowest cost producer of garlic, and unfortunately, the documentary says cheap Chinese garlic being imported into the United States has raised the issue of “dumping”: selling a foreign product while undercutting the domestic industry.

To control “dumping,” the Department of Commerce conducts yearly reviews of Chinese garlic importers and producers. The companies found to be dumping are slapped with a steep dumping tax, which helps even the playing field for domestic garlic producers. “Rotten” draws attention to what could be a gaping loophole in that process, though. Year after year, the largest Chinese garlic exporter has somehow avoided paying the dumping tax. And that’s where this episode turns into somewhat of a complex, “he said, she said” story.

You meet lawyer Ted Hume, who specializes in international trade and represents a number of small Chinese garlic producers. He claims that “Harmoni International Spice Inc.” is in cahoots with the USA’s largest wholesaler and distributor of garlic, “Christopher Ranch.” That company also happens to be the largest member off of the “Fresh Garlic Producer’s Association,” a body formed to protect the interests of American producers against increasing imports from China. You learn that when the Department of Commerce conducts its yearly reviews of Chinese garlic companies, it looks to members of the U.S. garlic industry to decide which companies make the list. And every year, the FGPA has removed “Harmoni” from the review list.

Hume alleges “Christopher Ranch” doesn’t want “Harmoni” reviewed because it’s the biggest buyer of its garlic. Essentially, he says “Christopher Ranch” buys the super cheap Chinese garlic from “Harmoni,” then sells it across the U.S. for an enormous profit. Apparently, that’s not illegal, but it does cost American jobs and hurts the bottom line of other Chinese garlic companies. Hume says he wanted to prevent “Harmoni” and “Christopher Ranch” from taking over the entire garlic industry. To do that, he recruited a couple of garlic producers in New Mexico to file an official request with the Department of Commerce to have them reviewed.

Are you following? I admit; it’s complicated.

I’d say the most disturbing allegation in this episode comes from a domestic garlic importer and processor. A man named Mingju Xu says he’s tried to make an honest living by importing garlic from China and peeling it at his U.S. headquarters so it’s always fresh. Since 60 percent of the garlic Americans consume is pre-peeled, he should be making some good money. Only, he’s not. Xu says Chinese peeled garlic is so much cheaper than what he can offer. The reason, he says, is forced prison labor in China. To prove his theory, he went back to China, and posing as a garlic buyer, smuggled a hidden camera into a prison and recorded the inmates peeling for hours. He alleges they were required to peel about 20 kilos of garlic a day. Xu followed the peeled garlic from the prison to the packing plant, and there he found boxes belonging to “Harmoni” and “Golden Lion,” which the documentary says is a trademark of “Christopher Ranch.” He claims almost all of the finished product was being shipped to the USA to be used in food products sold in restaurants and grocery stores. And he thinks it’s been happening for years. I don’t know about you, but if this is, in fact, true, it turns my stomach. In China, it’s illegal to export prison-peeled garlic, and in the U.S., it’s illegal to import anything from abroad made through forced prison labor. U.S. customs and border patrol quickly opened an investigation.

For the record, “Christopher Ranch” has told the ‘Gilroy Dispatch’ that it has no connection to the “Golden Lion” brand. It says while it does do some business with “Harmoni,” most of its garlic is bought from growers in California. It also told the paper that the undercover prison video is fake and that it’s going to file a suit against Netflix asking it to clear the air and stop showing the documentary altogether.

As for “Harmoni,” it says the accusations of prison-peeled garlic are false. It also denies colluding with “Christopher Ranch” to control the garlic industry. In response to those allegations, it filed a lawsuit against Xu, Hume, and the New Mexico garlic growers he recruited for his case, accusing them of conspiring against “Harmoni.” The company claims Hume’s clients, the smaller Chinese garlic companies, are the ones guilty of dumping, and that they and Hume were out to destroy “Harmoni” for their own personal gain.

The Department of Commerce has closed its investigation into “Harmoni,” relieving the company of any wrongdoing. In the garlic industry’s own version of “David and Goliath,” Goliath had won. Hume is appealing that decision. Meanwhile, the case has created quite a bit of tension between the domestic garlic producers featured in this episode, which seems to be more about that than actual garlic. I had hoped that by watching this installment of the “Rotten” series I would learn more about what I wanted in a bulb, making more educated food choices for myself and my family. Instead, I watched a long and drawn-out story about the internal bickering within the garlic industry. In all honesty, I wasn’t wild about it.

The good news is, I am still wild about garlic. My garlic press will continue to be one of the most-used utensils in my kitchen. Vampires, beware.

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Catherine Sherriffs

Editor at Garden Culture Magazine

Catherine is a Canadian award-winning journalist who worked as a reporter and news anchor in Montreal’s radio and television scene for 10 years. A graduate of Concordia University, she left the hustle and bustle of the business after starting a family. Now, she’s the editor and a writer for Garden Culture Magazine while also enjoying being a mom to her three young kids. Her interests include great food, gardening, fitness, animals, and anything outdoors.