The Why Files The Why Files --

Food imports: How safe?

Poisons in food, medicines: Will anything change?
How will the accelerating concern about the safety of Chinese products play out as China's exports continue growing past the $1 trillion mark? So far, China has produced a curious recipe of reactions to the reports of dangerous foods and medicines:

A splash of "what-me-worry?" in the government's absurd assurance that all its exports were "guaranteed" (see #9 in the bibliography);

A dash of regulation: In June, China reported 23,000 violations at food plants and shuttered 180 factories;

A teaspoonful of frontier justice: On July 10, China executed the former director of food and medicine regulation; and

And a sprinkle of defiance: In late June, China impounded two U.S. food shipments, citing high levels of mold and bacteria. (Nine months after deadly bacteria was found on California spinach, Americans might seem in a poor position to caterwaul about food safety, but the E. coli contamination was accidental, whereas in the incidents we are discussing, multiple Chinese malefactors deliberately substituted cheap, toxic ingredients for safe ones.)

People sit around at restaurant, meat hangs on hooks on wall behind them
The safety of China's food is not only an export problem: Who knows what is in the food on this table? Who knows what went into that meat hanging in the background?

Changing course
With so much money at stake, China finally seems to be substituting problem-solving for stonewalling. On June 27, the International Herald Tribune reported (see #10 in the bibliography) on the latest crackdown:

"Regulators said 33,000 law enforcement officials had combed the nation and turned up illegal food-making dens, counterfeit bottled water, fake soy sauce, banned food additives and illegal meat processing plants. ... China Daily, the country's English-language newspaper, said Wednesday that industrial chemicals, including dyes, mineral oils, paraffin wax, formaldehyde and malachite green, had been found in the production of candy, pickles, biscuits, and seafood."

Ian Coxhead, who studies economic development, trade and agriculture in Southeast Asia at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says the Chinese government has reacted quickly and publicly because "It understands very well the cost to all of high-profile violations by some. Sending US inspectors to police thousands of production processes in tens of thousands of Chinese factories is expensive and impractical. Better that China's trading partners -- all of them -- apply their own health and safety regulations, and give wide publicity to violations when discovered, in the hope that these actions will create disincentives for cheating firms, and stimulate moves to strengthen the institutions of governance and oversight of the market."

Man in butcher's apron stands behind man in bowler hat, gazing out a doorway A silent movie version of Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel, "The Jungle," appeared in 1914. The novel's graphic descriptions of horrendous conditions in meat-packing plants spurred passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act. In the silent movie, Sinclair himself played a socialist agitator. Image: FDA

What to do on this side of the ocean?
Would increasing the percentage of border inspections above the current 1.3 percent help ensure food and drug safety? "No, but," is the answer from agricultural economics expert Ingham, who favors better targeting of inspections. "The perception is that 1 percent is not enough, but a targeted 1 percent would be better than an un-targeted 1 percent."

Focusing on countries and food categories that have, historically, had more problems should make inspections more efficient. The FDA has begun taking that tack, he adds.

Federal spending is abysmally inadequate to ensure the safety of imported food and drugs, in the opinion of Gary Weaver, of the University of Maryland's Center for Food, Nutrition, and Agriculture Policy. "The budget for FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, which is supposed to assure the safety of 80 percent of U.S. food imports, is less than $500 million."

A more realistic budget would be closer to $3 billion, Weaver adds. "Over the years at the FDA, whenever there was a budget cut, it invariably came from food [regulation and inspection], because drugs are sophisticated and food is just food."

One proposal now afloat in Congress would consolidate the food-inspection duties that are now divided between the U.S. Department of Agriculture (for meat) and the FDA (everything else). But, says Weaver, "That is not going to happen in the foreseeable future, unless we have another melamine situation, but instead of thousands of dead animals, we have thousands of dead people. We need a crisis for people on the [Capitol] Hill to spend the political capital to take authority away from the USDA and the FDA and make a new agency."

Since China is the source of so many problems, why not label food by to its country of origin? Curiously, that provision is part of a 2002 federal law, but due to political pressure, only seafood is now labeled. "The manufacturers [and meat industry] don't want to do that," says Higby. "It should be right on there: 'product of China,' just like it is on all the cups and saucers. But there is no chance for the labeling to go through, unless there is another real disaster. If [American] children are harmed or die, then it is a possibility."

Red and yellow peppers piled high and labeled as Product of Australia
Country-of-origin labeling is the law of the land in the United States, but it is only carried out on seafood. In Australia, they seem proud of their peppers -- who can blame them? Photos: Department of Agriculture and Food, Western Australia

The fruits of disaster?
Although the children (and other human beings) killed in Haiti and Panama due to phony labeling do not count in this grisly political calculus, highly-publicized disasters have always played a starring role in food and drug regulation:

Year Cause Regulatory effect
1906 Publication of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, about abuses in meat-packing plants. Meat Inspection Act and Pure Food and Drug Act begin federal regulation of food and drugs.
1938 Elixir of Sulfanilamide kills 105 in U.S. through diethylene glycol poisoning. Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act tightens regulation of drugs in 1938.
1962 Thalidomide causes gross deformities in thousands of babies in Europe. Kefauver-Harris Drug Amendments allow FDA to require proof of safety and efficacy for new drugs.
1982 Cyanide poisoning in tampered Tylenol. Federal government requires tamper-proof drug packaging.

Assorted shapes and sizes of old-timey medicine bottles
These medicines were available before FDA regulation. Not until 1962 did U.S. law require that meds be "safe and effective." Image: FDA

Just as American drug companies began adopting tamper-proof packaging after the Tylenol murders, in advance of the federal requirement for same, some American firms have already turned a baleful glare on their Chinese imports. According to The New York Times (see #11 in the bibliography), "General Mills, Kellogg, Toys 'R' Us and other big American companies are increasing their scrutiny of thousands of everyday products they receive from Chinese suppliers... . These corporations are stepping up their analysis of imported goods that they sell, making more unannounced visits to Chinese factories for inspections and, in one case, pulling merchandise from American shelves at the first hint of a problem."

All of the incidents we've looked at concern China, but China's behavior fits a broader pattern, says Ian Coxhead, professor of agricultural and applied economics at University of Wisconsin-Madison. "China, like other fast-growing economies, is undergoing a transition in which the opportunities created by markets are expanding much faster than the institutions that govern them, especially accountability in corporate and public sector behavior, and governmental capacity for design and implementation of regulations covering health, occupational safety, etc. Under these conditions, fraud and corporate irresponsibility are to be expected, and these traits are hardly unique to China, or even to low-income countries."

A safe feast in our bibliography; 100 percent government inspected! 1000 percent guaranteed!


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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