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Chinese Government Officials Say US Shares Some Blame For Tainted Foods

I hate to agree with the Chinese government but I have to on this issue. Our huge corporations push suppliers to get cheaper and cheaper...

Joy  |  May 29th 2007


I hate to agree with the Chinese government but I have to on this issue. Our huge corporations push suppliers to get cheaper and cheaper and sooner or later something gives. This time it was our furbabies. We must push our corporations to provide a minimum level of quality in food imports and products.

And the first thing our North American governments need to do is say, “no more Chinese food products of any kind until you guys clean up your quality standards and enforcements.” Until Chinese companies stop poisoning their own people with their shoddy products there is no reason to allow any of it into North America. This should not be a case of the FDA or anyone trying to “catch” their bad products; the Chinese should be held accountable to prove that they have improved their standards.

Thanks to USA Today for this article.

Chinese say U.S. shares blame in food scandal

By Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY

BEIJING Fed up with weeks of Americans bashing their food safety standards, Chinese government and industry officials say that bargain-hunting U.S. food companies share blame if contaminated Chinese ingredients wind up in food.
More than two months after the USA began a massive pet-food recall, since linked to contaminated ingredients imported from China, business and government officials in China are investigating what went wrong and promising improvement in a country where mass poisonings from tainted foods have been common. But they also say they’re not the only ones who need to take more responsibility.

“Officials like me in the Chinese government can supervise the producers here, but U.S. companies doing business with Chinese companies must also be very clear about the standards they need, and don’t just look for a cheap price,” says Yuan Changxiang, a deputy director in the ministry responsible for inspecting imports and exports.

Jin Zemin, general manager of Shanghai Kaijin Bio-Tech, which specializes in wheat gluten, agrees. U.S. importers “want cheaper prices, but that can come at a cost,” he says. “You should know exactly where the products you buy are coming from. Don’t just look at the price.”

The Chinese rebuttal coincides with diplomatic trade talks this week in Washington, D.C., covering a range of issues including U.S. complaints about contaminated food imports from China.

This week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced it would check all shipments of toothpaste from China following reports of tainted toothpaste and cold medicine in other countries.

After the pet-food scandal, the FDA is enforcing an import alert that requires inspections of all vegetable proteins from China that are used in many popular human, as well as animal, foods. Thousands of cats and dogs in the USA may have died from eating foods made with tainted ingredients imported from China.

Inspectors are on the lookout for melamine, a chemical used in making plastics, and related compounds that were used to artificially raise the apparent protein level of flour so it could be sold as high-priced wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate to brokers in the USA. They then sold the products to pet-food companies.

Demand took a jump

Jin says China exported little wheat gluten and related products before last year, when foreign demand and domestic production rose quickly. He said one reason for the increased demand was a drop in Australia’s wheat production.

“The business grew quickly in 2006, and other, smaller companies quickly joined in just looking for a quick profit. That is when the problems started,” Jin says, as “substandard” companies began underbidding more established firms.

Even before the news came out that melamine had been added to wheat gluten, Jin says, he was suspicious of some of his competitors.

“I thought it was strange that other companies offered wheat gluten at $26 to $39 per ton cheaper than ours, with a very high protein level,” he says, adding that his company’s wheat gluten sells for about $900 a ton. “How could that be? If it is so cheap, there must be a problem, I thought.”

Since the pet-food scandal broke, the Chinese government has banned melamine use in food products and detained managers at two companies suspected of supplying tainted ingredients that found their way into U.S. pet food and animal feed. The episode also has lent urgency to long-standing concerns among Chinese citizens about carcinogens in the fish they eat, poisonous additives in meat, contaminated eggs and bird flu.

In late April, China’s government ordered a crackdown on illegal fertilizers, pesticides, livestock drugs and food additives. The Politburo of China’s Communist Party, its inner council, is set to more than double funding for food safety research in the next two years to $26 million, says Wu Yongning, director of a Health Ministry office in charge of controlling chemical contaminants.

Wu says China’s problems have been overblown.

“There are relatively small problems with food safety in China, but the media has exaggerated the issue,” says Wu. “Most food producers are sincere, but we have such a large population, with so many food producers, so you cannot say that some companies will not use illegal means to gain profit.”

He says cases in which contaminants are illegally added to food products are falling in China.

“As a scientist, I worry firstly about bacteria that are hard to avoid. Secondly, the problems brought by environmental pollution; and, thirdly, the illegal actions of some firms, though this sometimes only affects product quality and does not harm health,” he says.

Professor Yang Shuming, head of the quality testing institute at the Ministry of Agriculture, says Americans should reserve judgment on the quality of Chinese food products. “Just because of a few bad cases, you should not suspect that the whole Chinese food system is bad,” says Yang, who is participating in Beijing’s investigation of the poisoned pet food. “We hope our food exports to the USA will grow. We have a good price due to lower labor costs than the USA, and good quality, too.”

Food industry is spread out

China’s greatest challenge in supervising its vast food industry is the fragmented state of food production, says professor Chen Junshi, one of China’s leading experts on food safety.

“We have over 200 million farming households, and production of different foodstuffs is very scattered,” says Chen, the director of an international center for food-contamination monitoring in China. “Even the government lacks an exact figure on the number of food-processing enterprises. There may be 1 million, across China’s 31 provinces, and most are small or midsize, and they lack education, and technical and legal knowledge. It is impossible for inspectors to visit them all within a single year.”

China has 100,000 health inspectors enough, Wu says, to inspect food-processing factories twice a year at most. “I don’t feel twice is enough, but that is all the power we currently have,” he says.

Wu acknowledges other gaps in oversight, due in part to confusion about which of 13 government departments is responsible for stages of the food-production chain.

Even so, Wu says, “If you compare food safety in China with our overall economic level, I believe it ranks far ahead of many countries. But our citizens are very demanding they demand as high standards from us as Europeans or Americans demand from their governments.”

And standards are higher for exported products, he says. “We have a separate system to check exported products. Other countries do not do this; they think it is the companies’ responsibility, and most countries care more about the quality of imported goods.”

Yuan hopes U.S. authorities will adopt a less aggressive approach. “If you find there is a problem with Chinese imports, tell me first so we can solve the problem together; don’t just ban it or take other measures, as that affects trade and relations. At present, the USA takes action first, and then informs us. I hope this will change,” he says.

The stakes are huge. Last year, China exported more than $2.3 billion in agricultural and food products to the USA, and those exports have been growing at about a 30% annual rate the past four years, says Michael Swanson, a U.S.-based agricultural economist for the Wells Fargo Bank.

Testing becomes big business

The pet-food crisis has been a boon for at least one Chinese firm. “Since the news of the tainted pet food, we have been asked by many companies to run tests for melamine on their samples,” says Sun Zhe, an employee at the food inspection department of SGS-CSTC Standards Technical Services, in the city of Qingdao. It’s a local branch of Swiss-based SGS, the world’s largest inspection, verification, testing and certification company.

“We did not test for melamine before, but in the last few weeks, we have received many new samples of vegetable proteins, meat products, pet food, semi-finished and finished food products, to test for melamine,” Sun says.

SGS-CSTC charges $52 a test to check a sample for melamine.

“We have found no melamine so far,” Sun says. “I think there are only a few cases, but it’s hard for China to stop every company from engaging in illegal practices. Chinese and foreign companies, both manufacturers and trading firms, ask us to test products so they can guarantee their quality. It’s a good new business for us.”

Some Chinese businesses see the pet-food crisis ultimately benefiting legitimate manufacturers.

“We hope that after the government regulates the market more strictly, there will be less fake product in the future, and more credible companies like ours,” says Helen Yang, saleswoman at CBH Qingdao, a subsidiary of Australian grain specialists CBH.

None of the wheat gluten it has sent to SGS-CSTC has tested positive for melamine, she says.

“Some clients asked us before why other companies sold wheat gluten at cheaper prices than ours. Now we know why because they used fake raw materials,” Yang says.

That’s not the only cautionary lesson from the pet-food calamity.

James Harkness, president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis, faults the FDA for ruling Chinese products such as grain and wheat gluten equivalent in quality to the USA’s. “FDA people don’t go and look at the farms or processing plants in China, but take their (Chinese) colleagues’ word for it. That was hasty and profit-driven.”

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