Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Importing Danger from China

Four years ago, I learned a cruel lesson in how global problems affect us all. Due to lax safety measures in Chinese food production, melamine ended up in several brands of pet food in the United States. My cat ate the melamine, developed severe and painful kidney failure and had to be put to sleep. From that point on, I realized whenever I watched world news, I had better start paying attention.
My cat, Nala, died from melamine in her petfood.
So when I read that China, a leading exporter of fruits, vegetables, fish and soon chicken (if the US gives them permission) were suppying an ever-increasing portion of the American diet, I became concerned. According to Food & Water Watch, in 2009, 70 percent of the apple juice, 43 percent of the processed mushrooms, 22 percent of the frozen spinach and 78 percent of the tilapia Americans ate came from China.

China is also manufacturing the ingredients for an increasing number of medicines we take.

So what? Well, think about this. Along with those Chinese-derived foods and medicines come the notorious safety problems associated with them.

A report titled Pathway to Global Product Safety and Quality, released by the FDA this week, acknowledges that “the safety of America’s food and medical products remains under serious threat,” according to The New York Times.

Both The New York Times and Food & Water Watch articles listed recent safety breaches that posed scary and/or deadly threats:
  • Melamine-tainted ingredients in products from well-known brands like Mars, Heinz and Cadbury
  • Melamine-tainted milk products that sickened hundreds of thousands of infants in China
  • Melamine contamination believed responsible for thousands of pet deaths in the United States
  • Contaminated heparin in 11 countries with more than 80 deaths in the US
  • Counterfeit glucose monitoring strips yielding inaccurate test readings
“It’s all very nice for people to feel that we have one of the safest food supplies in the world, but we really need to recognize that our food is increasingly coming from this complex supply chain and coming from parts of the world where there are not as robust standards and practice.”—Dr. Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the FDA

While melamine contamination grabs the most headlines, systemic food safety failures in China are the root cause of unsafe foods making it onto our dinner plates. The Wild West business environment in that country encourages food manufacturers to cut costs and corners. Even Chinese officials have publicly acknowledged their inability to regulate the country’s sprawling food production sector.

And now the FDA is doing the same. How could this happen? Sheer numbers.

A decade ago, the FDA was charged with inspecting 6 million separate shipments coming through 300 different ports. This year, that number is expected to grow to 24 million shipments, the report noted. Nearly two-thirds of all fruits and vegetables and three-quarters of all seafood eaten in the US are now imported.

The FDA inspects less than 2 percent of imported food and barely visits Chinese food manufacturers, according to Food & Water Watch. The FDA conducted only 13 food inspections in China between June 2009 and June 2010.

The situation with drugs and medical devices presents an even greater concern. More than 80 percent of the active ingredients for drugs sold in the US are manufactured overseas—mostly in manufacturing plants in China and India that are rarely inspected by the FDA. Half of all medical devices sold in the US are made abroad. Many kinds of antibiotics, steroids, cancer medicines and even aspirin are no longer produced in the US, or in many cases anywhere in the Western world.

Unfortunately, despite all the publicity, there is no indication that China’s food safety situation is improving. Melamine continues to appear in food inside China despite a flurry of new food safety legislation, says Food & Water Watch. Nonetheless, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is considering allowing US food retailers to import chicken from China.

Government investigators estimated that, based on its inspection rate in 2008, that the FDA would need:
  • 13 years to check every foreign drug manufacturing plant
  • 27 years to check every foreign medical device plant
  • 1,900 years to check every foreign food plant
With imports growing faster than the agency’s inspection force, those numbers can only get more daunting.

"Unsurprisingly, China's slipshod industrial model churns out dangerous food and consumer products. One provincial government survey found that less than half of food and consumer goods met basic hygiene standards, meaning more than half could be dangerous to consumers."A Decade of Dangerous Food Imports from China, Food & Water Watch

In January, President Obama signed into law a bill that granted the FDA new powers to police foreign foods. The law directed the agency to inspect at least 600 foreign food facilities within the next year and then increase that number every year afterward. Unfortunately, the House Republicans undercut the effort by slashing that agency’s budget when it needed to be increased.

F&WW Report: Think this doesn't affect you?
Facing that budgetary reality, Dr. Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the FDA, has proposed that all countries band together to monitor imports, thus sharing their inspectors worldwide—efficiently using their funds and personnel—and cutting out redundancy in inspections. This will work in some countries, but in others—China is one of them—local authorities are not always willing to cooperate and allow inspections. Also, some countries have locally corrupt inspectors, rendering their seal of approval questionable.

According to The New York Times, “Many in the food industry, angered by contamination scares that have cost hundreds of millions, have volunteered to pay fees directly to the FDA to underwrite more inspections. Consumer groups have cheered this suggestion. But Republicans in the Senate have so far refused to consider such fees, calling them an unacceptable tax. Polls have shown overwhelming and bipartisan support among voters for strengthened federal oversight of the food system.” That's right, Washington, we don't want to eat poisoned food. Nor do we want to feed it to our pets.

So what can we do to ensure our safety in the absence of our government doing so?
  • Buy foods from local farms, or at least from the US
  • Reduce or eliminate processed foods from your diet (most of them contain genetically engineered ingredients anyway)
  • Buy organic—as mentioned in previous articles, the cheapest way to do this is to join a community supported garden in your area. Click here to find one near you.


  1. I don't like those Chinese products because those Chinese-derived foods and medicines come the notorious safety problems associated with them.

  2. I would tend to agree with you on that.