China's Growing Toxic Food Export Threat

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/22/AR2007042201163.html

 

It's Not Just Pet Food

 

By Peter Kovacs

Monday, April 23, 2007; Page A17

Washington Post

 

Lost amid the anxiety surrounding the tainted U.S. pet food supply is this sobering reality: It's not just pet owners who should be worried. The uncontrolled distribution of low-quality imported food ingredients, mainly from China, poses a grave threat to public health worldwide.

 

Essential ingredients, such as vitamins used in many packaged foods, arrive at U.S. ports from China and, as recent news reports have underscored, are shipped without inspection to food and beverage distributors and manufacturers. Although they are used in relatively small quantities, these ingredients carry enormous risks for American consumers. One pound of tainted wheat gluten could, if undetected, contaminate as much as a thousand pounds of food.

 

Unlike imported beef, which is inspected at the point of processing by the U.S. Agriculture Department, few practical safeguards have been established to ensure the quality of food ingredients from China.

 

Often, U.S. officials don't know where or how such ingredients were produced. We know, however, that alarms have been raised about hygiene and labor standards at many Chinese manufacturing facilities. In China, municipal water used in the manufacturing process is often contaminated with heavy metals, pesticides and other chemicals. Food ingredient production is particularly susceptible to environmental contamination.

 

Equally worrisome, U.S. officials often lack the capability to trace foreign-produced food ingredients to their source of manufacture. In theory, the Bioterrorism Prevention Act of 2001 provides some measure of traceability. In practice, the act is ineffective and was not designed for this challenge. Its enforcement is also shrouded in secrecy by the Department of Homeland Security.

 

Even if Food and Drug Administration regulators wanted to crack down on products emanating from the riskiest foreign facilities, they couldn't, because they have no way of knowing which ingredients come from which plant. This is why officials have spent weeks searching for the original Chinese source of the contaminated wheat gluten that triggered the pet food crisis.

 

That it was pet food that got tainted -- and that relatively few pets were harmed -- is pure happenstance. Earlier this spring, Europe narrowly averted disaster when a batch of vitamin A from China was found to be contaminated with Enterobacter sakazakii, which has been proved to cause infant deaths. Thankfully, the defective vitamin A had not yet been incorporated into infant formula. Next time we may not be so fortunate.

 

Currently, most of the world's vitamins are manufactured in China. Unable to compete, the last U.S. plant making vitamin C closed a year ago. One of Europe's largest citric acid plants shut last winter, and only one vitamin C manufacturer operates in the West. Given China's cheap labor, artificially low prices and the unfair competitive climate it has foisted on the industry, few Western producers of food ingredients can survive much longer.

 

Western companies have had to invest heavily in Chinese facilities. These Western-owned plants follow strict standards and are generally better managed than their locally owned counterparts. Nevertheless, 80 percent of the world's vitamin C is now manufactured in China -- much of it unregulated and some of it of questionable quality.

 

Europe is ahead of the United States in seeking greater accountability and traceability in food safety and importation. But even the European Union's "rapid alert system" is imperfect. Additional action is required if the continent is to avoid catastrophes.

 

To protect consumers here, we must revise our regulatory approaches. The first option is to institute regulations, based on the European model, to ensure that all food ingredients are thoroughly traceable. We should impose strict liability on manufacturers that fail to enforce traceability standards.

 

A draconian alternative is to mount a program modeled on USDA beef inspection for all food ingredients coming into the country. This regimen would require a significant commitment of resources and intensive training for hundreds of inspectors.

 

Food safety is a bipartisan issue: Congress and the administration must work together and move aggressively to devise stricter standards. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, has deplored dangerous levels of lead in vitamin products originating in China. We must get to the bottom of this pressing public health issue, without self-defeating finger-pointing.

 

The United States is sitting on powder keg with uncontrolled importation and the distribution of low-quality food ingredients. Before it explodes -- putting more animals and people at risk -- corrective steps must be taken.

 

The writer was president of NutraSweet Kelco Co. from 1994 to 1997. He is a management consultant to many large food ingredient companies.

 

 

 

From Yale Global Online

 

http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/display.article?id=9053

 

Food inspectors have traced to China a contaminated ingredient in pet food that has killed an unknown number of animals. Wheat gluten is a common ingredient in pet food, cereal and pasta. The discovery of batches tainted with a pesticide illegal in the US raises questions about China's growing role in the international agricultural market. In 2006, 12 percent of world fruit and vegetable exports came from China, and gluten is not the first product to raise eyebrows. While the US inspects only a small fraction of imports, it rejected more than 200 Chinese shipments last year; other poisonous discoveries over the years include spinach, turbot, honey and more, all infected with chemicals better suited for industrial landfills. China has one of the highest rates of chemical fertilizer use in the world, and the onus is now on buyers to detect any problems. Chinese consumers have also suffered from contaminated food products, including the death of infants fed with counterfeit formula. Tainted food is tough to hide for long and triggers panic, reducing trade and productivity. China's inability to enforce consistent health codes on its producers endangers unwitting consumers worldwide and its own quest for prosperity. YaleGlobal

 

Who's Monitoring Chinese Food Exports?

 

Nicholas Zamiska

The Wall Street Journal, 13 April 2007

 

HONG KONG -- Tainted foods from China are becoming a growing problem as the country plays a greater part in the global food chain. Chemical use is high, regulations are lax, and while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has the authority to check imports for contaminants that are in violation of U.S. law, it is able to physically inspect only a small fraction of them.

 

Late last month, the FDA said it had traced the culprit in the deaths of more than a dozen cats and dogs in the U.S. to contaminated wheat gluten produced thousands of miles away in Jiangsu province, China. The wheat gluten ended up in pet foods sold in stores across America run by Kroger Co., Safeway Inc., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and others. It is far from clear how many pets have been affected, but the number could rise. The FDA says it has received more than 10,000 complaints.

 

The Chinese wheat gluten was contaminated by an industrial chemical called melamine, which is used to make plastics, glue and fire retardants but is also used as a fertilizer in Asia, according to the FDA. It may have led to kidney failure in the animals, although the FDA says it isn't yet certain how exactly the pets died. The Chinese company, Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co., has denied shipping wheat gluten to the U.S.

 

Contaminated foods from China have shown up overseas before. In 2002, frozen spinach shipped to Japan was found to have high levels of the pesticide chlorpyrifos. Late last year, Hong Kong health officials halted imports of turbot from mainland China that contained a banned substance called malachite green, an antifungal agent that may cause cancer.

 

Over the years, foreign governments have also found and rejected Chinese exports of honey containing the antibiotic chloramphenicol, crushed peppers with pesticides and seafood contaminated with veterinary drugs, to name only a few examples, according to Helen Jensen, professor of economics who works on food safety issues and international trade at Iowa State University. The pet-food case, she says, shows how, as the food system has become global in sourcing, "we're vulnerable to what goes on throughout the world."

 

China's contamination problems stem in large part from its loose regulations and highly fragmented food production. Hundreds of millions of small farmers grow its food, and they rely heavily on chemicals to coax production out of intensively cultivated soils and to fight pests.

 

The result: "China has one of the world's highest rates of chemical fertilizer use per hectare, and Chinese farmers use many highly toxic pesticides, including some that are banned in the United States," according to a report published last November by the economic-research service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

 

More than a dozen government agencies are responsible for ensuring the safety of China's food supply, and coordination and communication among them is a often a problem, notes Henk Bekedam, the World Health Organization's chief representative in China. "Despite many efforts, food regulations and standards have been developed in an ad hoc way without the benefit of a basic food law," he adds.

 

The FDA has the power to stop shipments at the border and collect samples and test for certain contaminants that may be in violation of U.S. regulations. Last month, it refused 215 shipments from mainland China for various reasons. A shipment of dried red dates from Chongqing was considered filthy, frozen swordfish from Shandong contained a poisonous substance and ginseng from Changsha had unsafe pesticides.

 

But the food shipments that get tested are the exception, not the rule. "The volume of food imports from overseas is approaching 10 million per year, and the number that FDA inspectors physically examine is in the single digit thousands -- making it virtually certain that any given food shipment will enter the United States with no FDA inspection," William Hubbard, a retired associate commissioner of the FDA, said in Senate testimony in July 2006. "I could provide many more similar statistics, all of which paint a picture of an FDA regulatory structure that is under-resourced, understaffed and essentially incapable of meeting" many of its responsibilities on ensuring food safety.

 

In many cases, the burden of ensuring that food shipped out of China is safe falls on the foreign buyers, who negotiate with Chinese producers over what quality standards the food must meet.

 

A spate of poisoning cases in China has forced the government to publicly address the problem at home, even though it is unclear how much progress has been made towards improving safety. One of the most high-profile incidents occurred in 2004, when more than a dozen infants died after their mothers unknowingly fed them fake milk powder that had little or no nutritional value. Chinese television stations broadcast images of sick and dead babies that were fed the counterfeit formula.

 

Last November, Chinese authorities found that poultry farmers in Hebei province were adding Sudan B, a cancer-causing red dye used in industrial manufacturing, to the feed of their ducks. The dye caused the ducks to lay eggs with a reddish yolks instead of yellow ones, fetching a higher price.

 

"Food safety is a problem for China," says Mao Qunan, spokesman for China's Ministry of Health in Beijing. However, he adds that "So many times the media says the problem is so big, so huge. But I don't agree with these comments on the safety of the food."

 

In 2005, the Ministry of Health reported that 9,021 people were stricken by food poisoning, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency. Of the 235 deaths that year, around half were caused by poisonous chemicals in the food. The rest were from bacterial contamination and other causes.

 

But those numbers may understate the problem because it is often difficult to pinpoint the cause of such illnesses in rural China. At least 300 million people are estimated to be affected by food-borne disease in China each year, according to Mr. Bekedam of the WHO. The WHO estimates that food-borne disease costs China between $4.7 billion and $14.0 billion a year in medical-care expenses and loss of productivity.

 

Meanwhile, China's food problems are becoming the world's problems, as agriculture exports surge. As of last year, China accounted for about 12% of global trade in fruits and vegetables, challenging U.S. producers in three main areas, including apple juice, fresh apples and fresh vegetables, according to a USDA report published last year. The U.S. is China's largest market for exports of apple juice. China's agricultural exports to the U.S. have soared over the past three decades, rising to $2.26 billion in 2006 from $133 million in 1980, according to the USDA.

 

The current problems with pet foods began in mid-March. Ontario-based Menu Foods Inc., which produces major brands like Eukanuba and Iams, recalled its "cuts and gravy" style pet food in cans and pouches after receiving information that pets that ate the product had fallen ill. The recall was later extended to more products. Within nearly a week of the recall, the company received complaints or expressions of concern from about 200,000 consumers.

 

The FDA suggested that ChemNutra Inc., a Las Vegas-based supplier of wheat gluten to Menu Foods, had received contaminated gluten from Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co. in Jiangsu. The U.S. government halted shipments of wheat gluten to ChemNutra and is now requiring that all shipments of wheat gluten from China be scrutinized.

 

China is carrying out a nationwide inspection on the quality of its wheat gluten, a report from state-run Xinhua news agency said Friday.

 

A manager of Xuzhou Anying, surnamed Mao, told Reuters last week that his company never sold any wheat gluten to the U.S. "I don't understand how come they are blaming us," he said. But when representatives from ChemNutra met with Mr. Mao on March 31 in China to discuss the alleged contamination, he "was apologetic and embarrassed and promised to do an investigation," said a person familiar with the matter. This person said that the wheat gluten was shipped through an intermediary before arriving in the U.S.

 

Reached at the company on Friday, a manager who gave his name as Mao Lijun, who may or may not have been the same Mr. Mao, said that he was busy and hung up his phone when asked about the allegations.

 

Wheat gluten -- a mixture to two proteins -- is used as a thickening agent in pet food gravy and is in many products for humans, from cereals to pasta. Exports from China have been brisk, with demand exceeding supply this year, according to Li Wenxin, sales manager at Qingdao Wansheng Chemical Co., a trading company in Shandong province that exports wheat gluten to several countries, including Australia, India, Italy and Russia. The FDA says there is no evidence that any of the wheat gluten imported from Xuzhou Anying Biologic has entered the human food supply.

 

Marc Ullman, a lawyer for ChemNutra, said that at this point, it is still not completely clear how the wheat gluten became contaminated. The wheat gluten that was imported from China wasn't tested for melamine, and testing for the chemical isn't routinely done in the industry, he said. "There's no way to test every container of food for every potential toxin coming into the United States."

 

Tang Hanting contributed to this article.

 

Source:

The Wall Street Journal

 

This ABC News/ AP story used the above for a source.

 

http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory?id=3035067&CMP=OTC-RSSFeeds0312

 

China's Food Safety Woes Expand Overseas

Pet Food Crisis Shows China's Food Safety Woes Are an International Concern

 

By CHRISTOPHER BODEEN

The Associated Press

 

Photo caption:  A farmer picks rape blossoms at a farm on the outskirts of Shanghai, China, seen in this March 10, 2006 file photo. The wave of American pet deaths linked to contaminated food is bringing home a frightening new fact: China's chronic food safety woes are now an international concern. Problems in China's food supply chain are legion and go right to the root: a farming sector dominated by tens of millions of tiny household farms, many an acre (two-fifths of a hectare) or smaller, making regulation difficult. Regulation is lax, corruption is rife and a go-go capitalism mentality prevails in a fast-changing society. A result is recurring food-safety scandals.

 

SHANGHAI, China - The list of Chinese food exports rejected at American ports reads like a chef's nightmare: pesticide-laden pea pods, drug-laced catfish, filthy plums and crawfish contaminated with salmonella.

 

Yet, it took a much more obscure item, contaminated wheat gluten, to focus U.S. public attention on a very real and frightening fact: China's chronic food safety woes are now an international concern.

 

In recent weeks, scores of cats and dogs in America have died of kidney failure blamed on eating pet food containing gluten from China that was tainted with melamine, a chemical used in plastics, fertilizers and flame retardants. While humans aren't believed at risk, the incident has sharpened concerns over China's food exports and the limited ability of U.S. inspectors to catch problem shipments.

 

"This really shows the risks of food purity problems combining with international trade," said Michiel Keyzer, director of the Center for World Food Studies at Amsterdam's Vrije Universiteit.

 

Just as with manufactured goods, exports of meat, produce, and processed foods from China have soared in recent years, prompting outcries from foreign farm sectors that are feeling pinched by low Chinese prices.

 

Worried about losing access to foreign markets and stung by tainted food products scandals at home, China has in recent years tried to improve inspections, with limited success.

 

The problems the government faces are legion. Pesticides and chemical fertilizers are used in excess to boost yields while harmful antibiotics are widely administered to control disease in seafood and livestock. Rampant industrial pollution risks introducing heavy metals into the food chain.

 

Farmers have used cancer-causing industrial dye Sudan Red to boost the value of their eggs and fed an asthma medication to pigs to produce leaner meat. In a case that galvanized the public's and government's attention, shoddy infant formula with little or no nutritional value has been blamed for causing severe malnutrition in hundreds of babies and killing at least 12.

 

China's Health Ministry reported almost 34,000 food-related illnesses in 2005, with spoiled food accounting for the largest number, followed by poisonous plants or animals and use of agricultural chemicals.

 

With China increasingly intertwined in global trade, Chinese exporters are paying a price for unsafe practices. Excessive antibiotic or pesticide residues have caused bans in Europe and Japan on Chinese shrimp, honey and other products. Hong Kong blocked imports of turbot last year after inspectors found traces of malachite green, a possibly cancer-causing chemical used to treat fungal infections, in some fish.

 

One source of the problem is China's fractured farming sector, comprised of small landholdings which make regulation difficult, experts said.

 

Small farms ship to market with little documentation. Testing of the safety and purity of farm products such as milk is often haphazard, hampered by fuzzy lines of authority among regulators. Only about 6 percent of agricultural products were considered pollution-free in 2005, while safer, better quality food officially stamped as "green" accounts for just 1 percent of the total, according to figures compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

 

For foreign importers, the answer is to know your suppliers and test thoroughly, food industry experts said.

 

"You just have to hope that your system is strong enough and your producers are careful enough," said Todd Meyer, China director for the U.S. Grains Council.

 

Health Ministry officials acknowledge problems, but have described scandals such as the 2004 baby formula deaths as isolated incidents. Neither the ministry nor the State Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, responsible for overall food safety standards, responded to questions submitted to them in writing as requested.

 

Over the past 25 years, Chinese agricultural exports to the U.S. surged nearly 20-fold to $2.26 billion last year, led by poultry products, sausage casings, shellfish, spices and apple juice.

 

Inspectors from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are able to inspect only a tiny percentage of the millions of shipments that enter the U.S. each year.

 

Even so, shipments from China were rejected at the rate of about 200 per month this year, the largest from any country, compared to about 18 for Thailand, and 35 for Italy, also big exporters to the U.S., according to data posted on the FDA's Web site.

 

Chinese products are bounced for containing pesticides, antibiotics and other potentially harmful chemicals, and false or incomplete labeling that sometimes omits the producer's name.

 

To protect its foreign markets, China is trying to set up a dedicated export supply chain, sealed off from the domestic market, said Keyzer. Systems for tracking and tracing vegetables have been set up, although doing so for meat products is harder, he said.

 

Large producers targeting foreign markets have also moved to gain greater control over supplies by expanding their operations instead of buying from individual farmers.

 

The tainted pet food scandal is likely to increase this momentum. More than 100 brands of pet foods and treats have been recalled, one of the largest pet food recalls in history. Menu Foods was the first of at least six companies to recall pet food, beginning in mid-March, after reported cases of cats and dogs developing kidney failure after eating the affected products.

 

How the contaminated wheat gluten got into the product cycle is not yet known. The gluten was traced to a company outside Shanghai, Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co.

 

The company and the government's inspection and quarantine administration are investigating. But a company sales manager, Geng Xiujuan, said Xuzhou Anying was only a middleman, buying the gluten, commonly used as a thickener in pet food, from companies in neighboring provinces and selling it to a separate trading company.

 

While no investigation results have been announced, industry experts said they suspect the gluten might have been contaminated by having been processed or stored in machines or containers also used for melamine. Such anomalies show just how difficult it is to ensure purity, they said.

 

"It's just really hard to test for everything," Meyer said.

 

 Return to main China page