Why do we need to import wheat gluten from China?

Answers to your questions about the news.
April 2 2007 7:33 PM

Un-American Pet Food

Why do we put Chinese wheat gluten in Fido's kibble?

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up for The Explainer's free daily podcast on iTunes.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration blocked imports of wheat gluten from a Chinese company Monday. The agency identified the company as the source of the tainted wheat gluten that caused a massive pet-food recall last week. Given how much wheat is produced by American farmers, why do we need to import wheat gluten?

Because it's cheaper than buying domestic gluten. We may be the world's largest exporter of wheat, shipping 1 billion bushels to other countries in last year's growing season. Yet we export relatively little wheat gluten. To extract the gluten from wheat, you have to separate it from the starch, by repeatedly washing and kneading wheat flour. But only four U.S. companies go through this process; last year, they produced roughly 100 million pounds of wheat gluten, about 20 percent of the domestic demand.

Advertisement

Almost two-thirds of the more than 400 million pounds we imported came from European Union countries. That's because the Europeans use wheat starch to make sweeteners, which leaves them with a lot of extra gluten. The United States, on the other hand, relies on corn for sweeteners—thus the high-fructose corn syrup in our sodas. Add in Europe's wheat subsidies, and EU nations can sell their wheat gluten for a low price. U.S. wheat-gluten-makers say EU prices are sometimes below American production costs.

In addition to EU countries, Australia accounted for more than 18 percent of imported gluten in 2006 and China 14 percent, according to the USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service. Industry insiders say Chinese imports more than doubled from 2005, based on U.S. Census Bureau figures.

Our enormous appetite for wheat gluten exacerbates the wheat-gluten trade deficit. We're the world's biggest consumer of wheat gluten today; American manufacturers use it to produce baked goods. Having the right protein content in dough ensures that it will remain intact as it rises. Without the elasticity afforded by the gluten, bread would collapse, yielding a dense, heavy loaf. Wheat gluten also gives vegetarian "fake meat," like DIY seitan, and pet food a meatlike texture and binds together processed foods like chicken nuggets, turkey burgers, and imitation crabmeat. Gluten even makes its way into shampoo and biodegradable sporks.

Bonus Explainer: We may be the biggest wheat exporter around, but we're also an importer. The United States bought $304 million worth of wheat from Canada last year, and smaller amounts from Mexico, Hungary, and a few other nations.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Joshua Lagos at the USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service, Ronald Madl of the Bioprocessing and Industrial Value Added Center at Kansas State University, and Steve Pickman of MGP Ingredients.

Michelle Tsai is a Beijing-based writer working on a book about Chinatowns on six continents. She blogs at ChinatownStories.com.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Irritating Confidante

John Dickerson on Ben Bradlee’s fascinating relationship with John F. Kennedy.

My Father Invented Social Networking at a Girls’ Reform School in the 1930s

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

The All The President’s Men Scene That Captured Ben Bradlee

Medical Examiner

Is It Better to Be a Hero Like Batman?

Or an altruist like Bruce Wayne?

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

The World’s Human Rights Violators Are Signatories on the World’s Human Rights Treaties

How Punctual Are Germans?

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 12:44 AM We Need More Ben Bradlees His relationship with John F. Kennedy shows what’s missing from today’s Washington journalism.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 9:42 PM The All The President’s Men Scene That Perfectly Captured Ben Bradlee’s Genius
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 21 2014 11:44 PM Driving in Circles The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.