A hazelnut ocean cruise: Turkey, Thailand, then the U.S.

The news and blogosphere has been abuzz about contaminated food from China, causing many to ask where their food (and their pets’ food) is coming from and what is in it. Here’s my own story about food from a far away place. Fortunately, the only negative effect was a slight dizziness from seeking out statistics on hazelnut production, shipping routes, and food labeling regulations (or was it “blogger’s high”?).

Now and then I see something surprising on a food label. This time it was “product of Turkey / packed in Thailand” on a package of Trader Joe’s whole hazelnuts (see photo below). Such a dual-country provenance is not terribly unusual — think of a bar of Lindt chocolate made with cacao sourced from several tropical countries but processed in Switzerland — but it is not often that the details are right on the label. After the jump, I’ll take a look at hazelnuts, logistics and country of origin labeling.

Trader Joe's hazelnut label

The “product of Turkey” part makes sense because Turkey is the world’s leading producer of hazelnuts. According to a USDA web article (PDF), Turkey produces over 70 percent of the world’s hazelnuts; Italy is second with 15 percent; Spain, Azerbaijan and the U.S. each produce about 2 percent.

The U.S. has some domestic hazelnut production, so these Turkish hazelnuts must be filling a shortage of domestic hazelnuts, right? No, that’s not the case. From 2001 to 2005 the average U.S. production was 11,822 metric tons. Of this, about 9,600 metric tons were exported (primarily to Hong Kong, Germany and Canada). During that same period, however, over 6,100 metric tons were imported into the U.S. Like many other foods, the same product flows into and out of the country. (Source: USDA Economic Research Service nuts spreadsheet)

I would guess that economic factors drive Trader Joe’s to pack the nuts in Thailand. Perhaps Thailand has large and efficient packing facilities for goods from Europe and Asia. Or perhaps labor costs are significantly lower than in Turkey. If the transport ship is going to a West Coast port, a stop in Thailand only adds about 1,500 miles to the journey (the Port World distance calculator gives the distance from Istanbul to Los Angeles via Thailand’s port of Laem Chabang to be 14,282 miles (23,136 km). Without the stop in Thailand, the trip is 12,765 miles (20,679 km) across the Pacific. Going to an East Coast port like Boston reduces the journey to about 5,000 miles (8,100 km)). In addition to the extra shipping miles, the stop-over increases the logistical burden with needs for additional transport to Thailand, import paperwork in Thailand, transport within Thailand, and export paperwork for the packaged nuts.

In the end, with the extra miles and headaches, the Turkish-Thai hazelnuts are still cheaper than U.S. hazelnuts (99% of which come from Oregon, according to a USDA PDF). Alternatively, Oregon hazelnut producers might get a better price from Hong Kong buyers than Trader Joe’s, which probably drives a hard bargain. (ask someone what they like about Trader Joe’s and the first or second thing they say will be “low prices.”)

The country-of-origin label on the bag of hazelnuts is not required by law in the U.S., and so I’m grateful to Trader Joe’s for providing the information. In my experience, they put country-of-origin labels on a significant fraction of their products (e.g., cashews from Vietnam, pine nuts from China, etc.). Mandatory country-of-origin labeling (COOL) for meat, seafood, vegetables, fruits and peanuts (but not other nuts) was part of the Farm Bill that passed in 2002. However, after an outcry from the food industry, Congress put the program on hold for everything except seafood until 2008 (seafood labeling began in 2005). There is talk of using the 2007 Farm Bill to lift the hold on COOL (perhaps in exchange for a deal on the national animal ID system), but powerful forces are aligned against it — the big meat packers and giant chains like Wal-Mart, to name a few. COOL would require expenditures by manufacturers and might make labels more complicated, but I think that consumers deserve to know where their food comes from. After the recent melamine contamination in pet and hog food, many probably agree with me. The upcoming Farm Bill would be a good place to restart the COOL process, but even if it makes it into the bill, vigilence will be needed to ensure that the program is fully funded, instead of withering on the vine like the 2002 mandate.

3 Responsesto “A hazelnut ocean cruise: Turkey, Thailand, then the U.S.”

  1. DairyQueen says:

    Few people know that Trader Joe’s is part of a massive, privately held supermarket empire owned by two octogenarian German billionaires, Theo and Karl Albrecht. (I wrote a profile of them a couple of years ago for a business magazine.)
    The brothers’ wealth comes mainly from the Aldi Group, a discount food chain with more than 6,000 stores in Europe, Australia, and the U.S. They are incredibly secretive and forbid anyone in the company from talking to the press about anything except their products, and that pretty reluctantly. In 1971 Theo Albrecht was kidnapped and held for ransom for nearly three weeks.

    Anyway, three years ago they were buying a quarter of their products from overseas, which allows them to sell them so cheaply; because their stock rotates so often, with certain products coming and going, they probably got a good one-time deal on a huge load. As for why they’re packed in Thailand, perhaps they’re destined for the Asian market but there was a surplus TJ’s scored. It’s interesting that they label the country of origin, because they seem to avoid labeling where their meat and dairy comes from — I had heard the grassfed beef was from Uruguay, but I haven’t shopped at TJ’s in ages now so I don’t know if they are now labeling those products.

  2. richelle says:

    look i really have to know about tukey the country because i’m doing a research on it. I haveto know about everything thats there. please help me here.

  3. richelle says:

    look here i really need to know everything about turkey the country