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China, Oregon Sign Food Testing Agreement

Oregon and Chinese officials signed an agreement Monday that could open the door to safer food imports and a brighter economic future for Northwest farmers.

In a first-of-its-kind deal, the Oregon Department of Agriculture will test samples of food being exported from China, against U.S. guidelines. At the same time, Northwest growers are being offered a fast-track to meeting Chinese standards, and gaining entry to the enormous Chinese market. Rob Manning has more.

The concern over the safety of Chinese imports may be relatively recent, but this agreement was four years in the making.

Dalton Hobbs:  “Mr. Chen, shall we sign the documents?”

That’s Oregon Agriculture Assistant Director Dalton Hobbs. He’s talking to Zhi Xiong Chen, with the Chinese equivalent, of the Food and Drug Administraton.

Chen: (in Chinese)

Interpreter: “You’re the host, you sign first.”

Hobbs: “OK.”

The politically sensitive deal sanctions testing in Oregon and China to insure products headed from one place to the other meet  the standards of the importing country. Under the agreement, testing  is voluntarily, but it could offer some certainty to companies and customers in both places.

Zhi Xiong Chen emphasized the two-way nature of the deal, through his interpreter.

Chen/Interpreter: “We are looking for a way to certify the products going to China and coming to here, according to the fed FDA requirement.”

Assistant Director Dalton Hobbs says the deal should help make up the shortfall of information about products entering U.S. ports.

Dalton Hobbs: “A very small percentage of the food products that are imported into the United States actually are directly inspected or tested. This will add additional knowledge to that base of products coming in. And importantly, this information will be sent to the Food and Drug Administration.”

No one at the Food and Drug Administration was available for comment, though state officials say the FDA is following the Oregon agreement with some interest. The deal was brokered here, according to Assistant Secretary Hobbs, because of the testing center in Portland.

Dalton Hobbs: “Oregon has a very long tradition of playing this role. Oregon is one of the few states in the United States that offers these kinds of services, and certainly is the only state in the United States that offers the range of services that we do.”

Kathleen Wickman: “I’m Kathleen Wickman, I’m the lab manager for the ODA analytical laboratory….” <then interpreted into Chinese under >

Dressed in a white lab coat, Wickman steers a group of two-dozen visiting Chinese dignitaries past labs run by the Department of Agriculture. She points out where scientists test for the presence of heavy metals or pesticide residue in plants and soils. And there are areas for specific foods.

Kathleen Wickman: “We are also the central lab for doing US FDA shellfish testing. So we monitor the shellfish that grow on our coast, and the water….”

< interpreter under >

According to state ag officials,  seafood may become a key Chinese import to be tested.

Oregon already has agreements with other countries that allow state ag officials to test Oregon products against foreign rules. The idea with the China agreement is that companies on both sides of the Pacific could certify their products before they ship them.

Dalton Hobbs with the Oregon Ag department says the Chinese know what they’re doing.

Dalton Hobbs: “If we were standing in Zhuhai, China, in their laboratories, you would see nearly identical equipment and methodology, capabilities. Several times, I’ve visited there, and it’s pretty clear that they’re at a level that’s world class in nature.”

Chinese officials say their import center — where some testing will take place — offers other benefits.

Mr. Chen says an enormous logistics center in the southern coastal city of Zhuhai will offer testing, as well as an open door for Oregon companies.

Chen: “This logistics’ center will be the bridge for US products to go to China because we provide custom inspection on site, and we can also provide distribution channels for products to be sold all over China.”

Dalton Hobbs says the distribution offered all over southern China could be a big boon to Oregon agriculture.

Dalton Hobbs: “It’s like a permanent ongoing trade show for Oregon agricultural products, in the middle of a place that services 200 million in population.”

Officials expect that it’ll be at least two or three months before the details of testing are worked out. The hope is that both sides can agree on reliable tests for labs  in both Oregon and China, which meet requirements in both places.

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