They looked like the Maytag repairman. Actually several rows of Maytag repairmen (and women), sitting in their booths with nothing to do, certainly no one coming over to talk to them.
The July Institute of Food Technologists Food Expo must have been a painful experience for the importers and suppliers of Chinese ingredients. They had their own pavilion, for better or worse concentrating them in one area, but it was like a ghost town. Most of the time you could have fired a cannon down those aisles and not hit anyone. Certainly not an American ingredient buyer.
"Compared with last year, this is not so great," said Wen Zhang, owner of Zhong Ya Chemical (USA) Ltd., Piscataway, N.J. "Several people [potential customers] talked to me about their concerns over the ingredients -- how we do quality control and documentation.
"Many of the other [Chinese] exhibitors told me the same thing. They did not have many visitors. They did not have a good show. They knew people were worried about the Chinese ingredients."
Zhang and his company are not newcomers. They've been in the States 12 years, importing and distributing ascorbic acid, monosodium glutamate, sorbates and other food ingredients, as well as a few industrial chemicals and detergents. The American food industry has been his largest customer.
"Business has been up and down" over those years, he said, but generally has been on a strong growth curve. Sales that first year were less than $1 million. Now he's doing $8 million a year … although he's a little worried that, after a busy first half, sales will hold up in the second half of this year.
But not too worried. "We have existing relationships with many American companies. They understand our business and respect our quality control. Our office in China inspects carefully. We have good documentation. The products we import do not allow these issues.
"But we also are told the Chinese government will do a better job. They cannot allow these things to happen. There will be more food safety because this hurts all Chinese companies.
"It has been only a few Chinese companies that created these problems. Most of the Chinese companies are very careful. They have been exporting good products for several years. And not just to the United States. We all are afraid to lose business because of things like this," concluded Zhang.
I've heard from people on both sides of this fence. Some think the Chinese reaction is just window-dressing, that for at least a long time there will be shoddy workmanship and corners cut in a Wild West economy with 1.3 billion cheap workers and loads of money to be made as quickly as possible, sometimes before all the rules and safeguards are in place.
On the other hand, in July they executed Zheng Xiaoyu, the former head of the national food and drug safety agency, for corruption. Executed him! Also a Wild West thing to do, but it was just that kind of frontier justice that probably hastened the settlement of our own Wild West.
James Rice, a vice president at Tyson Foods, manager of the company's China operations and a member of our Editorial Advisory Board, warned me against over-reacting. Food safety is one thing, he said, protectionism is another.
You've got them in the right order, I said. In any discussion, food safety comes first. Everything else is a very distant second.