U.S. Ginseng Has A Loyal Clientele

U.S. Ginseng Has A Loyal Clientele

By Frank Shyong, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LOS ANGELES — One of the most popular holiday gifts in China is ginseng, stamped with an unusual guarantee: 100 percent American.

Few consumers are more faithful to American products than Chinese users of ginseng: the U.S. exported $77.3 million in ginseng roots last year, most of it to Hong Kong, and American ginseng fetches the highest price of any cultivated variety.

The Asian market prizes the American strain for its stronger flavor and high levels of the active ingredient that is said to unlock the root’s myriad but unproven health benefits.

The other part of the U.S.’ competitive advantage is favorable feng shui. Ginseng grown in North America is said to have a “cool” nature and calming effect, which means it can be taken daily; Asian ginseng is considered “hot” and must be consumed in limited quantities.

American ginseng is cheaper in the U.S. than in China. In the San Gabriel Valley, herbal stores cluster on streets near hotels popular with tourists, their shelves loaded with red boxes covered in quality seals and branded with American flags.

But an American flag is no guarantee of American authenticity, said Tom Hack, international marketing director for the Ginseng Board of Wisconsin, where he says up 95 percent of the U.S. crop is grown.

In a recent survey at an Asian food expo in Southern California, the board found that less than 12 percent of ginseng products labeled as Wisconsin ginseng actually came from Wisconsin.

Hack says American ginseng purchased in America is more likely to be Canadian, or …

Chances are, he said, the Chinese tourists “are taking Chinese-raised ‘American ginseng’ back with them.”

At Chung Chou City in San Gabriel, the heavy scent of dried herbs and seafood fills the air as an elderly customer sinks his hand into a barrel of sliced ginseng root. Manager Jeff Lin hurries over.

“Man man kan,” he says encouragingly. Take your time.

Ginseng is a boom-or-bust business, Lin said; sales jump when plane tickets are cheap and tourists from the Hilton hotel across the street are plentiful. Lin has noticed a slight increase before breaks in the school year, when Chinese students studying in the U.S. buy boxes to take home to their families. Ginseng is an especially prestigious gift to give for Christmas, Lin said.

Raw ginseng is available in several 60-pound barrels at the front of the store, but Chung Chou City also offers ginseng whole, chopped, powdered, in pills, or as candy or tea.

Thick roots are more valuable, and smooth, unblemished roots cost hundreds of dollars more. Wild, foraged ginseng commands the highest price, but American-grown ginseng is the most popular, Lin said.

Stores eagerly display their Wisconsin credentials. At Ten Ren Tea and Ginseng in Monterey Park, a gold-plated plaque with the words “Wisconsin Ginseng Export License” hangs over the counter. Other stores offer glossy pamphlets describing company-owned-and-operated ginseng farms in Wisconsin.

It’s a highly profitable industry in which even a few small sales can put a store in the black. At one store, the most expensive roots were selling for up to $9,000 a pound.

Around this time, in the days after the Lunar New Year, Wisconsin’s ginseng farmers are overrun with orders from Chinese suppliers trying to restock after the holiday rush.

Sales have been strong the last few years, and farmers have sold out their whole inventory, said Hack of the Ginseng Board of Wisconsin. In 2013, the board and Beijing-based Tong Ren Tang signed a 10-year, $200-million deal to sell Wisconsin ginseng in China.

But over the last two decades, Wisconsin farmers have watched their market share sharply decline thanks to ginseng piracy and brand dilution, Hack said.

As proof, he offers some math. Wisconsin produces about 700,000 pounds of ginseng a year — 95 percent of the American crop, according to the Ginseng Board. About 80 percent of that is exported directly to Asia. That leaves roughly 140,000 pounds of genuine Wisconsin ginseng for distribution in the U.S. — a small fraction of U.S. sales.

U.S. ginseng suppliers typically aren’t selling Wisconsin-grown ginseng, Hack said, because so little of it is available in the domestic market. The U.S. imports a lot of ginseng for domestic use — about $31.3 million of it in 2014, according to WiserTrade, a research firm that compiles data on U.S. foreign trade.

Some of that imported ginseng could be marketed as Wisconsin-grown, Hack said. A few years ago, Wisconsin ginseng seeds were planted in Canada and China — both among the world’s leading ginseng producers.

Funded by assessments from ginseng farmers, Wisconsin’s Ginseng Board was formed in 1986. In 1991, it trademarked an official seal that would be stamped only on board-verified ginseng products.

But the seal was widely pirated, and the board sued several companies for trademark infringement.

Today, just seven distributors worldwide are authorized to use the seal. But ginseng suppliers are still counterfeiting American authenticity, Hack said.

In January, Wisconsin Ginseng Board officials flew to Southern California and inspected dozens of Wisconsin-branded ginseng products at the Asian American Expo in Pomona. Hack says less than 12 percent of the products were actually from Wisconsin.

Hayward-based Prince of Peace is one of just two authorized distributors of Wisconsin ginseng in the U.S. The company distributes about 80,000 pounds of the product a year, said Billy Poon, general manager of its Asian market division.

They package their ginseng in distinctive peach-colored boxes printed with an endorsement from former pro tennis player Michael Chang. But even their packaging has been pirated, Poon said.

Hack declined to comment on whether any lawsuits were pending against Southern California companies, saying only that cease-and-desist letters had been sent based on their findings at the Pomona event.

Wisconsin’s ginseng industry has shrunk dramatically thanks to plummeting prices, Hack said. At one point, there were 1,500 growers producing 2.2 million pounds of ginseng a year. Today, about 180 growers produce about 700,000 pounds annually.

“We don’t get a fair shake,” said Joe Heil, a Wisconsin farmer who has cultivated ginseng for 22 years. Imported ginseng “is mislabeled, it’s snuck in. The Chinese (who) are bringing it in laugh about it.”

On Garvey Avenue in Monterey Park, Joe Lin, owner of Chang Le Xin Hui Group, munches on Hainan chicken as he oversees an empty store.

An immigrant from China’s Fuzhou province, Lin opened three years ago, and his business has grown slowly. Competition is fierce; within a few blocks of his store, about a dozen others compete for tourist business from the nearby Lincoln Plaza hotel.

Down the street, a box of American-labeled ginseng was going for $10. At the Yuen Fong Sum Yong Trading store in neighboring San Gabriel, the deal was buy one box, get one free.

“There are too many ginseng stores,” Lin said. “We Chinese people always do this _ as soon as something makes money, everyone copies it.”

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Image: American ginseng that is being sold for $2,300 per pound at Shinsen Ginseng and Herbs, Inc. in San Gabriel, Calif. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Brittany Maynard, Terminally Ill Advocate For Death Aids, Dies At 29

Brittany Maynard, Terminally Ill Advocate For Death Aids, Dies At 29

By Frank Shyong, Los Angeles Times

A young woman who moved to Oregon to take advantage of the state’s assisted-suicide law took lethal drugs prescribed by a doctor and has died, a spokesman said Sunday.

Brittany Maynard, a terminally ill woman who made headlines when she moved to Oregon so she could legally take her own life, died Saturday after consuming life-ending medication, according to Sean Crowley, spokesman for a nonprofit who worked closely with Maynard’s family.

She passed away in her bedroom surrounded by loved ones in her home in Portland, Ore., according to a release.

Maynard was diagnosed with brain cancer, and in April doctors told her she had six months to live. As her pain got worse and her seizures grew more frequent, Maynard and her family decided to move from California to Oregon, where state law allows terminally ill patients of sound mind to seek medical help to end their life. California has no such law.

Maynard’s family published an obituary on Maynard’s website Sunday evening supporting her decision.

“Brittany chose to make a well-thought-out and informed choice to die with dignity in the face of such a terrible, painful and incurable illness,” the obituary reads.

Five states — Oregon, Washington, Vermont, Montana and New Mexico — have laws that allow terminally ill patients to seek medical aids to death. California considered similar legislation in 2007, but the measure was shelved after it failed to receive enough support to pass.

Maynard, a graduate of UC Berkeley and UC Irvine, went public with her story in October to advocate for wider passage of such laws. She appeared in a feature for People magazine that quickly went viral and sparked a nationwide debate about physician-assisted suicide.

She launched a website, www.theBrittanyFund.org, where she raised money to lobby for the passage of “death with dignity” laws and blogged about her last months of life.

Maynard was an adventurous traveler, according to the release. She climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, taught in orphanages in Nepal and scuba-dived in the Galapagos. She had resolved to visit the Grand Canyon before she died, and a post from Oct. 24 described how headaches, neck pains and eventually a seizure cut the experience short. On Sunday night, a video posted to the website’s home page shows Maynard talking about her decision.

“If Nov. 2 comes along, and I’ve passed, I hope my family is still proud of me and the choices I’ve made,” Maynard says in the video.

AFP Photo

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Lawsuit Against Sriracha Hot Sauce Factory Dropped; City Tables Nuisance Resolution

Lawsuit Against Sriracha Hot Sauce Factory Dropped; City Tables Nuisance Resolution

By Frank Shyong, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — The Irwindale City Council has decided to drop a lawsuit against the Sriracha hot sauce factory and table a separate resolution declaring the factory a public nuisance.

The city and the factory began warring late last year, when residents began to complain of a spicy odor that caused headaches, heartburn and watering eyes.

The trial was scheduled to begin this November, and the public nuisance declaration would have eventually authorized city officials to enter the factory and make the changes themselves.

But city officials said Huy Fong Foods Inc. had finally demonstrated a specific written commitment to solving the smell issues. Mayor Mark Breceda, who toured the factory earlier this week, said the conflict should not have been so drawn out.

“We’re almost sorry that this has gone on so long,” Breceda said. “We’re looking forward to being partners for a very long time.”

The council voted unanimously Wednesday to table the resolution and decided in closed session to drop the lawsuit.

Huy Fong Foods Chief Executive David Tran was not present at the meeting but thanked his supporters in a statement to the Los Angeles Times.

“From now on, I will be concentrating on making my hot sauces quality better and better, with the price being lower and lower,” Tran said.

It wasn’t immediately clear why the city has relaxed its position. Tran has promised before to fix the issues, in writing and in person at council meetings through an attorney, but Irwindale officials still sought regulatory action.

The conflict has dragged on for nine months, drawing the attention of politicians around the country, who sought to lure the popular hot sauce manufacturer to their state.

John Tate, attorney for Huy Fong Foods, said the council’s decision Wednesday did not result from any legal settlement between attorneys.

“Management (of the city) met with the mayor, and they had a frank discussion which resulted in a willingness to work together,” Tate said.

City officials say they will visit the Sriracha plant again when it begins to grind peppers harvested in the fall. The plant is still functioning under a court injunction that bans harmful odor-causing activities, but it’s up to the city to go back to court to enforce that, Tate said.

The conflict seems to have ended without any official agreement about whether there ever was a harmful odor.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District did not find enough evidence of a harmful smell to justify issuing a violation, and air quality officials say about two-thirds of the complaints they received came from just four households.

The first complaints came from City Councilman Hector Ortiz’s son. In February, Huy Fong Foods began to offer daily tours through the factory and asked each participant if they experienced any harmful odors. None did.

But the city’s own smell study, by Santa Monica environmental consulting firm SWAPE using a different survey method, found harmful odor levels in multiple areas around the city.

City officials also mailed a survey to residents and about 40 percent of respondents said they could identify the smell, according to copies of the responses obtained by the Times. About 16 percent of respondents said the smell was harmful.

Tran said he had made some changes to the filtration system at the plant, and he promised in a letter to the council to fix whatever smell issues the city identifies.

“We are obviously happy with the decision the city made to drop the lawsuit and will continue to make a quality product for everyone to enjoy,” said Adam Holliday, director of operations for Huy Fong Foods. “We feel confident that the system we have is adequate and we believe that the troubles with the city are over.”

Photo via Flickr 

Sriracha Factory Hosts City Officials In Bid To Reconcile

Sriracha Factory Hosts City Officials In Bid To Reconcile

By Frank Shyong, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Irwindale city officials toured the Sriracha hot sauce factory Tuesday morning in a possible sign of thawing relations between the city and the sauce company.

Sriracha maker Huy Fong Foods and Irwindale have been feuding in the courts and in headlines since Irwindale residents began to complain of a spicy odor last year. CEO David Tran has repeatedly asked city officials to visit the factory to no avail. But on Tuesday, City Manager John Davidson, Mayor Mark Breceda, and Councilman Julian Miranda donned hairnets and toured the factory with Tran as a dozen cameramen and reporters swarmed.

Both parties discussed a possible solution in a closed-door meeting afterward, but no specifics were offered. Two representatives from Gov. Jerry Brown’s office sat in on the meeting and tour, they said, as observers. No attorneys attended the meeting.

The meeting comes one day before a council meeting in which Irwindale officials are expected to decide whether to declare the hot sauce factory a public nuisance. The city has also sued the hot sauce company in Los Angeles Superior Court, and the trial is expected to begin in November.

As the conflict drags on into the ninth month, politicians from all over the United States have also rushed to associate themselves with Tran, whose personal narrative lends itself to pro-business and anti-government regulation agendas. Tran, who said he was willing to move the factory, has also been wooed by municipalities across the nation, especially in Texas.

But after Tuesday’s meeting, Breceda said, he expects that the city will drop both the lawsuit and the resolution declaring the hot sauce factory a public nuisance. He said the factory was “extremely clean” and even “beautiful,” and expressed remorse that the conflict had gone on so long.

“We’re looking forward to being partners for a long, long time,” Breceda said. “We’re almost sorry that this has gone on so long,”

Tran, who has in the past accused Irwindale of acting like a “local king,” echoed Breceda’s sentiments. “We understand each other, and we’re going to be working together,” Tran said.

Tran, Breceda and Davidson, in conversations after the meeting, even proposed that their families have dinner together.

It wasn’t immediately clear what prompted this improvement in their relationship, but Breceda said that Tran had finally offered, in writing, to fix the problems that the council saw. Although Tran had months ago written a letter to the city offering do as much, Breceda said that this time Tran had given specific dates and named specific measures.

“We just needed it in writing,” Breceda said.

The factory’s air filtration technology hasn’t changed much, but Tran said that’s because it can’t test odor-mitigation measures until the factory begins grinding peppers at the end of July. City officials plan to visit again once grinding season begins, Breceda said.

Aside from a brief shortage in January caused by new food safety regulations from state regulators, all of the attention seems to have worked out well for Sriracha hot sauce.

Since Tran threw open the doors of the factory for daily public tours in February, more than 600 people have taken part. The factory will experience another year of growth, and in the fall it will receive and grind more than 58,000 tons of peppers — 8,000 tons more than last year. The factory has grown to about 80 full-time employees, and Tran said the company expects to hire more than 200 seasonal employees when the pepper harvesting season begins.

But Tran also fears that he’s lost market share because he has been forced to reveal so much about his production process. In addition to museum exhibits, themed nights at major league baseball games and political speeches, Sriracha’s newfound popularity has also spawned imitators. Trader Joe’s has long offered its own version of Sriracha hot sauce, and Tabasco recently began selling its version in an online store.

The Irwindale City Council is expected to table a resolution declaring the smell of hot sauce production a public nuisance on Wednesday. It has delayed a final decision on that resolution several times since it was proposed in April.

Photo: Robin via Flickr