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Food roulette, Chinese style

By HAROLD MEYERSON Special to the Washington Post
Published May 25, 2007


WASHINGTON -- And what is madame's dining preference this evening? Scallops coated with putrefying bacteria? Or mushrooms laced with illegal pesticides?

These delicacies and more were among the hundred-plus foods from China that our Food and Drug Administration detained at U.S. ports last month, Rick Weiss reported in the Washington Post. Detained and sent back to the importers, who ofttimes sent them back to us again.

And that's just the hors d'oeuvres. Moving on to the entree, madame can sup on U.S. chicken, pork and fish tainted with Chinese pet food ingredients, or on poultry arriving in crates labeled "prune slices" and "vegetables," from Chinese slaughterhouses straight out of Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel, The Jungle.

Madame will be happy to know that her government is working to speed more of these toxins to her table. FDA inspectors are able to check less than 1 percent of regulated Chinese food imports (which is why the importers, if at first they don't succeed, try, try again), but the Bush administration is not content to rest on its laurels. Under pressure from U.S. agribusiness, which wants more entry to the Chinese market, the Agriculture Department is reportedly inclined to change its rules and let China send us its chicken undisguised.

If it does, Weiss reports, much of American business will breathe easier. "So many U.S. companies are directly or indirectly involved in China now," says Robert B. Cassidy, a former assistant U.S. trade representative for China, "the commercial interest of the United States these days has become to allow imports to come in as quickly and smoothly as possible."

Cassidy understates the economic benefits. He omits the boost to our pet cemetery industry -- and for its human counterpart, we can only guess.

Now, you may have missed, in all those impassioned defenses of globalization, the part about uninspected and unregulated food from distant lands showing up, unannounced, for dinner. Yet this was always an implicit part of globalization -- at least of the globalization we have today, structured of, by and for business and financial interests. For globalization was never merely about access to bigger markets than could be found at home. It was also about extending commerce beyond the bounds of regulation and unions and meddlesome meat inspectors.

The incidence of malignant meat imports reaching market can be diminished, I don't doubt, by a greatly expanded FDA. But no one should be deluded that such last-minute interception is remotely equivalent to having our inspectors in the plants. As Ronald Reagan said of Soviet missiles, so we should say of Chungking chicken: Trust, but verify. The FDA, having no access to China, isn't the best vehicle for verification, and the Chinese food-safety bureaucracy, based on the caliber of Chinese exports, leaves something to be desired, too.

Which is to say, if we're going to globalize the food we eat and wish to be safe, we need to get serious about globalization. The regulations we enacted under Theodore Roosevelt, who established the FDA (partly in response to the outcry Sinclair's novel prompted), need to become part of the rules of the World Trade Organization. Granted, this is a utopian proposal, but ultimately it is the only sensible response to the borderless business utopia we have now: a global economy devoid of the regulations nations once enacted to protect citizens when economies were merely national.

It should come as no surprise if food-safety standards emerge -- slowly -- as some of the first real global regulations. The FDA was one of the earliest national regulatory agencies -- partly because meat crossed state lines, partly because Sinclair's novel made millions of Americans anxious about what they ate. Sinclair had intended his tale of life in a slaughterhouse to spark outrage about the indignities inflicted on meatpackers, but readers couldn't get past his descriptions of the meat. "I aimed for the nation's heart," Sinclair said, "and hit its stomach."

As then, so now: The stomach remains the soft underbelly of the reign of laissez faire. Absent regulations, madame will skip dessert.

Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of American Prospect and the L.A. Weekly.