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Convenience comes with consequences

May 22, 2012 - By Walter Cook

Ask any Wyoming angler about carp, and he or she probably will refer to a nasty, bottom-dwelling fish imported from Asia that crowds out native fish and more-desirable transplanted trout.

The large fish are so hated that in some lakes, such as Ray Lake between Lander and Fort Washakie, fishermen have been known to suffocate carp by tossing them onto the shore after unintentionally catching them.

In fact, in some places in the US -- such as the Great Lakes -- anglers actually are encouraged by wildlife officials to kill the fish due to the threat carps pose to other fish species. This fact has recently stunned people in China, where carp is a food source and a native species that, ironically, is rarely found in the wild there.

They expressed their exasperation in droves on message boards earlier this year, which prompted a flood of stories in the western media about China's relationship with carp.

Judging by the blog posts, the Chinese weren't so much horrified by the carp killings as they were amazed by the fact that the United States has such a pristine environment that allows carp and other fish species to thrive.

Many of the posts amounted to jokes about how

Americans are missing out on a great meal by tossing the carp ashore.

But the naively humorous exterior of the blog posts belies a dark reality: Fish don't thrive in China because a large number of its rivers are on the verge of ecological collapse.

According to a report from news agency Bloomberg, 40 percent of the nation's rivers failed to meet China's minimum quality standards in February.

In addition, approximately 20 percent of China's river water is so polluted that it can't even be used for industrial or agricultural purposes.

Bloomberg summed the situation up like this: Most fish don't thrive in polluted waters, and those that survive aren't the ones that you'd want to eat.

There are two primary reasons for China's water issues. First, the manufacturing base in developed countries such as the United States has been gutted and shipped -- along with the associated jobs -- to China in order to save corporations (as well as consumers) money.

Second,China's regulations are too weak to deal with the resulting manufacturing onslaught, which often has resulted in toxic, heavy-metal-laden factory runoff finding its way into rivers.

It's not just the Chinese government's lack of regulations that's worrisome, it's also the rather blatantly unethical behavior of its corporations. For instance, Kentucky-based fast-food chain KFC is one of the most popular and most trusted restaurants in China. Why? Because the spiking of food with cheap, harmful adulterants is so common by China's food companies that many of its citizens see the greasy, finger-lickin'-good wares of KFC as the "healthy" alternative, according to a report from CNBC.

Apparently the standards of a food chain based in a country overrun by carp can't be all that bad.

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As a technical business writer whose work environment is a cross between the movies "Office Space" and "Wall Street," I conduct a lot of industry research. It's common for me to study the most mundane minutiae of, say, a company that produces bottle caps, as well as the fascinating science behind the complex engine parts made by an aerospace company.

Lately, I've been researching honey and vitamins.

What I've learned has given me relief that I don't take vitamins and, on those rare occasions that I do buy honey, I buy it locally.

That's because China is no longer just producing our consumer gadgets, it's also making our food supplements and has turned the planet's only unprocessed sweetener into something that can no longer be classified as honey.

That's right, we've entrusted our health to a country that has become the world's toxic waste dump.

According to the New York Times, 80% of the world's ascorbic acid, which is used in vitamin C supplements, is now produced in China. It's virtually impossible to purchase a multivitamin that is free of ingredients produced in China. If you don't like the sound of that, your best bet, as always has been the case, is to obtain your vitamins from fresh fruits and vegetables.

In addition, nearly all aspirin is produced in China and prescription drugs are increasingly being produced there, including one infamous batch of Viagra contaminated with a drywall ingredient that made the risk of a prolonged erection the least of consumers' worries.

When it comes to honey, our leaders tried to do the right thing. After cheap, sub-standard Chinese honey arrived in the United States en masse around 2000, our leaders placed a 500 percent tariff on Chinese honey to protect domestic beekeepers, many of whom stood to be put out of business. In addition, Chinese honey was a concern because it sometimes contained a high level of toxins.

Unfortunately, a recent investigation by Food Safety News discovered that the majority of honey in grocery stores contains no pollen, meaning it can't be classified as honey and therefore might simply be faux-honey derived from a substance like corn syrup. Granted, pollen can be removed from honey through an extensive filtering process, but

because of the time and cost involved, there's no logical reason to do so.

However, there is one country known to remove pollen from its honey -- China. It turns out that pollen is the one biomarker that can be used to determine the origin of honey. A large portion of the honey in the U.S. now comes from India and various Southeast Asia countries, which prompted Food Safety News to surmise that China's honey is being smuggled through such countries. Unfortunately, without pollen there's no way to know for sure.

There were some bright spots in the Food Safety News investigation. Although around 75 percent of the honey found at major grocery chains doesn't contain pollen, all of the honey tested at smaller high-quality retailers like Trader Joe's and Whole Foods contained pollen. In addition, all honey tested at farmers markets contained pollen.

Consumers still have choices. But those choices are dwindling quickly as we opt for cheaper, more convenient goods and vote for politicians who see no problem with off-shoring the remains of our economy to places such as China.

Oh well, at least we'll always have carp to fall back on.

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Editor's note: Former Ranger reporter and Fremont County native Walter Cook is a business writer in Los Angeles.

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