The Why Files The Why Files --

Food imports: How safe?

What's on your toothbrush? What killed your cat? Is your medicine safe?
On July 10, China executed its former director of food and drug safety, who was convicted of approving untested medicines in return for payments under the table -- bribes. Abroad, the quick, harsh punishment was seen as China's effort to prove that it is serious about controlling dangerous exports.

Asian man sits in red chair looking downcast and defeated, his arms crossed over his chestThere have been plenty of those recently: In May, the Washington Post reported that the FDA "detained" 107 Chinese food shipments in April, "along with more than 1,000 shipments of tainted Chinese dietary supplements, toxic Chinese cosmetics and counterfeit Chinese medicines" (see # in the bibliography).

On Jan. 10, 2007, Zheng Xiaoyu, China's former director of food and drug safety, was put to death, as China tried to show the world that it is serious about the safety of foods and drugs. Effective regulation is a massive task, since about 450,000 companies process food in China. AP Photo

There is no question that some Chinese foods and medicines contain ingredients that nobody wants to read on a label:

Banned drugs: In late June, after the Food and Drug Administration found anti-bacterial and anti-fungal drugs in 15 percent of Chinese seafood imports, the agency began requiring importers to test five Chinese seafoods for drug residues. Growing animals with human antibiotics speeds the evolution of deadly antibiotic-resistant bacteria. One drug found in the seafood was the versatile fluoroquinolone (Cipro), which was used to fight anthrax attacks in 2001.

Industrial chemicals (1): Diethylene glycol in medicine:
Diethylene glycol (DEG) is a cheap, sweet-tasting chemical Man pours a bottle of blue liquid into his car engine.  Glug, glugused in antifreeze that happens to destroy kidneys. In 2006, DEG, falsely labeled "glycerin" by a Chinese company, was blended in cough medicine in Panama. Panama's confirmed death toll has reached 94; 293 more deaths are under investigation (see # and # in the bibliography).

Diethylene glycol is one type of antifreeze, which is added to water to lower the freezing point and allow cars to work in cold climates. DEG may be sweet to the tongue, but it's murder on the kidneys. So why did Chinese companies label DEG as "glycerin," a harmless chemical used in a broad range of consumer products? Photo: EPA

Industrial chemicals (2): Diethylene glycol (DEG) in toothpaste

•Sweet 'n cheap DEG was also blended into Chinese toothpaste that was sold to prison systems in Georgia and North Carolina.

•Toxic tubes of Chinese toothpaste containing DEG have been yanked from stores in Canada, Japan and the United States.

•Counterfeit Colgate toothpaste from China, again containing DEG, has appeared in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Canada

Industrial chemicals (3): melamine
This raw material for plastic was blended into millions of cans of animal food sold in the United States and Canada. The ungroovy gravy may have killed thousands of pets because melamine, like DEG, destroys kidneys.

Cute gray-white cat looks at camera
This spring's pet-food recalls caused a record number of calls to the FDA, but the death toll has yet to be confirmed. Photo: Courtesy ©David Tenenbaum

Global problem?
Once upon a time -- say one year ago -- most food-and-drug safety worries focused on bacteria or trace levels of toxic compounds like PCB or an insecticide. This year's incidents are a flashback to an earlier century, when gross contamination resulted from greed, not accident, and when you did not have to wait years for the bodies to pile up.

Man in a hardhat and white coat surveys a conveyor belt of meat carcassesDifferences in food safety regulations between importing and exporting countries can cause more than just more paperwork. Illness and death are the consequences of lax standards. Photo by Keith Weller USDA/ARS

In today's contaminations, no scientific questions beg for answers: Who needs a controlled clinical trial to confirm the culinary concerns of consuming chemicals used to make antifreeze or plastic?

The new contaminations, coupled with falling-apart tires and lead-painted toys that also came from China, have caused what The Guardian newspaper (London, U.K.) recently called "a global crisis of confidence" in the world's fastest-growing exporter.

The incidents also reflect the surge in cross-border shipments of foods and food ingredients. According to Gary Weaver, director of the Program on Agriculture and Animal Health Policy at the University of Maryland:

The average American eats about 260 pounds of imported food annually. That's 13 percent of the total diet.

Annual U.S. imports of agricultural products are about $70 billion, about double the level of 1997.

In some products, imports already dominate, Weaver says. The U.S. "now imports 25 percent of our fresh and frozen fruit, 50 percent of our tree nuts, and 70 percent of our fish and shellfish."

The FDA inspected about 1.3 percent of food imports in 2007, and next year's inspection rate will be even lower. China also supplies large proportions of common food ingredients, including about 80 percent of U.S. our ascorbic acid (vitamin C) imports, and more than half of the apple juice, used as a sweetener.

As food exports mushroom, so do China's total exports: For the first six months of 2007, the trade gap between the United States and China zoomed to $112.5 billion, up 84 percent in one year (see # in the bibliography).

How did a deadly antifreeze ingredient wind up in medicine and toothpaste?


Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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