by Dina Eliash Robinson
Not a day seems to go by without media reports about yet another batch of toxic products arriving from China.
To be fair, there are plenty of other global traders, too, whose U.S.-bound shipments should be stamped with the scull and crossbones in the interest of full disclosure. Inspectors have rejected shipments of foods from India containing putrefied ingredients, dirty rice from Thailand, and contaminated candy from Mexico and (yes, even) Denmark.
Still, consumer attention—and mistrust—is focused mostly on Chinese imports pouring into the U.S. market. Most of us are alarmed at the danger to public health and safety posed by the inability of U.S. inspectors to intercept more than a fraction of such Chinese products as toxic foods, medicines, vitamins, toys, toothpaste and defective tires. The FDA admits that in spite of frequent alerts placed on Chinese imports of food, medicine, and additives, it is only able to inspect one percent or less of goods coming into the United States. The reason? Inadequate funding and resources.
Long before the recent reports about pets dying or getting sick in North America from melamine-contaminated pet food, the media has been clanging the alarm bell about China’s manufacturing and food production problems. A decade ago, for example, dozens of Haitian children and 94 people in Panama died, and others were injured by a fever medicine and cough syrup laced with the antifreeze ingredient diethylene glycol.
Since then, there have been countless reports of tainted Chinese exports. Among them are animal, fish and other seafood products that continue to show dangerous levels of the toxic antifungal chemical agent, malachite green, as well as two illegal antibiotics—one of which is the powerful, anti-anthrax Cipro.
At this writing, millions of toys made in China are being taken off store shelves in the wake of a $30 million recall by Mattel Inc., after they were found to contain lead-based paint and easy to swallow magnets.
The Beijing government is fully aware of the problem that a potential mass-rejection of its exports could cause the Chinese economy. While it has taken various confidence-rebuilding steps in recent months, more consumers are becoming worried about the safety of Chinese products. If anything, the execution of Zheng Xiaoyu, the former head of China’s State Food and Drug Administration, on charges that he accepted $850,000 in bribes to approve untested medicines, seems to have increased consumer jitters. Other steps taken by the Chinese government include shutting down 180 food manufacturing plants in the last eight months; rejecting several U.S. shipments of nuts and other food items for ‘not being up to Chinese standards’; complaining about U.S. ’protectionist tendencies,’ or at least, attempts to discriminate against Chinese exports (possibly because of the trade imbalance favoring the latter); etc.
On a separate track, Beijing officials admit that they are up against nearly insurmountable difficulties in a vast country filled with tens of thousands of freewheeling businesses—from large factories to mom-and-pop operations.
In spite of this challenging situation, government officials seem willing to work with U.S. business interests in China to improve manufacturing standards and bring about a system of regulations. Everyone, however, seems resigned to the fact that regulations and standardized improvements will take decades.
The ball, therefore, is in the U.S. court. It is up to Washington to provide the FDA with the funding and resources it needs to protect our health and safety. On the other hand, it is the responsibility of each U.S. citizen and resident to let Washington know that increasing the number of trained FDA inspectors and fully equipped labs near ports of entry are top-of-the-list priorities.
More about the China story in future posts.