Chinese exports bring a real threat

Published May 25, 2007

There's a scare a day involving the safety of Chinese food exports. The latest is toothpaste containing a poisonous solvent that showed up in several countries (though not the United States, so far). Before that, the same solvent in cough syrup killed 100 people in Panama. And a recall of U.S. pet food laced with deadly ingredients imported from China keeps expanding, almost to the human dinner table after hogs and chickens were fed the product.

So where is the outrage from U.S. regulators, food manufacturers and consumers? If our enemies were purposefully poisoning the food supply, there would certainly be a sense of urgency. Yet not when it comes to China.

The threat is real. It appears that a poisonous ingredient was knowingly added to Chinese toothpaste (some marketed to children with a bubble gum flavor) exported to the Dominican Republic, Panama and Australia. The ingredient, diethylene glycol, is found in antifreeze, though the Chinese consider it an acceptable substitute for glycerin, a harmless syrup.

A manager at the company suspected of making the toothpaste acknowledged to the New York Times that diethylene glycol is commonly added to its domestic product. That same solvent falsely labeled as glycerin was exported to Panama and unwittingly added to cough syrup by pharmacists, killing dozens of children.

U.S. officials and manufacturers step cautiously for fear of angering China. The United States wants to export more products to that country's burgeoning population, and our food industry has grown dependent on its cheap exports. For example, 80 percent of ascorbic acid used widely in vitamin C supplements and as a preservative comes from China.

Meanwhile, the quality of those products gets inadequate attention from both the Chinese government and our own. Less than 1 percent of Chinese food imports are inspected by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, yet their rejection rate is 25 times that of Canadian products. The FDA has labeled Chinese fruit as "filthy" and swordfish as "poisonous," and has found carcinogenic ingredients in frozen shrimp, the Washington Post reported.

The situation is likely to get worse. Despite reportedly deplorable conditions on poultry farms in China, the United States is considering lifting a ban on chicken imported from there. This comes as Washington is trying to open the Chinese market to U.S. beef, though agriculture officials deny there is any quid pro quo.

Considering the inadequacies of the Chinese and American food-safety bureaucracies, the food industry is going to have to assume more responsibility for informing and protecting consumers. The industry finally may be getting that message.

"This isn't the first time we've had an incident from a Chinese supplier," Pat Verduin of the Grocery Manufacturers Association said of the pet food scandal. "This is not an issue the industry is taking lightly."

For one thing, the powerful trade group favors doubling the FDA's food safety budget. While that hardly expresses the sense of urgency needed with lives potentially at stake, it would be an obvious first step.