A REPORTER called recently to ask me what consumers could do to protect themselves against potentially toxic products from China.
"Is it possible that cheap tennis shoes from China could have toxins in them that we don't know about? What about toys and food? How can we protect ourselves?"
While I am not an expert in product safety or labeling laws, if anybody ought to know something about the words "Made in China," it's me. For all of 2005, my family swore off Chinese imports. People figured we were standing up for Tibet or protesting lost American jobs, but our reason was personal, not political. It was an experiment. We wanted to test our connections to China's vast economy in a meaningful way. More to the point, we wanted to know if it could be done, and what it would be like to try.
Made in China labels became the roadmaps that guided us during trips to the mall. I found those words in the obvious places: on toys, televisions, cellphones, tools, lamps, sneakers, and T-shirts. They popped up in unexpected places, too: in the collars of $250 knock off Chanel jackets, on discount Barbie-themed chocolates, and in chic off-the-rack wedding dresses. I learned to stay alert in the canned goods aisle after I inadvertently purchased a can of oranges for the children. Mandarin oranges -- so obvious. Some labels were coy. My husband found racks of sunglasses that were "Made in Transoceanic China." Where the heck is Transoceanic China? I looked it up in the CIA World Fact Book. No such place.
My husband figured it was a fancy name for "Made in China."
"They couldn't fool me," he said.
Chinese merchandise was the only option for many things, forcing us to do without. Try finding birthday candles that aren't made in China. Or a coffeemaker, a toaster, or a baby doll like the one my husband wanted to buy for our daughter. Spend a week checking labels and you'll get an idea of what we were up against.
And yet I see now that we were dodging only the obvious bits of China, the stuff that announced itself as Made in China with a label. I was clueless that so much apple juice comes from China, and we drank plenty of that. For years, one of our kids has eaten cereal with freeze-dried strawberries, another big import from China. I recall a trip to the drugstore with my son when he held up a bottle of cough syrup and asked me if it was made in China. I peered at the box from every angle, but all I could find was a Rhode Island address.
"Not from China," I said, and tossed it in our basket.
I don't know if that cough syrup had ingredients from China or not, but now I see that I had no way to know -- and still don't. Which brings us back to the reporter who called for advice. She figured a year of obsessively reading labels would give me some insight into consumers' predicament.
"Well?" she asked.
In my head, I ticked off the lessons I'd learned from those labels. That we turn to China every time we phone a friend, decorate the house for holidays, or pop bread in the toaster. That the flip side to the pain of lost American jobs is the abundant, low-cost goods that had been off-limits to us. That a normal life without Chinese products isn't possible. That every time I see the words "Made in China," part of me longs for something I can't quite put my finger on and another part of me says, good for China. That we are so deeply tied to China that I can't envision how we could step back now.
Then it struck me that I wasn't sure if I should throw out the box of cereal with the strawberries in it, and that I didn't know if buying apple juice these days could be considered a reckless act. And where was our toothpaste made?
I sensed the reporter's impatience.
"What do product labels really tell us?" she asked.
I hesitated, and then I shot straight.
"Barely a thing."
Sara Bongiorni is author of "A Year without 'Made in China': One Family's True Life Adventure in the Global Economy."