Sunday, April 29

Tainted food from China: Before you reach for that vitamin bottle --

If you think tainted pet food is the only problem with our heavy reliance on China for our food supplies, read on:

Earlier this spring, Europe narrowly averted disaster when a batch of vitamin A from China was found to be contaminated with Enterobacter sakazakii, which has been proved to cause infant deaths. Thankfully, the defective vitamin A had not yet been incorporated into infant formula. Next time we may not be so fortunate.

Currently, most of the world's vitamins are manufactured in China. Unable to compete, the last U.S. plant making vitamin C closed a year ago. One of Europe's largest citric acid plants shut last winter, and only one vitamin C manufacturer operates in the West. Given China's cheap labor, artificially low prices and the unfair competitive climate it has foisted on the industry, few Western producers of food ingredients can survive much longer.

Western companies have had to invest heavily in Chinese facilities. These Western-owned plants follow strict standards and are generally better managed than their locally owned counterparts. Nevertheless, 80 percent of the world's vitamin C is now manufactured in China -- much of it unregulated and some of it of questionable quality.

Europe is ahead of the United States in seeking greater accountability and traceability in food safety and importation. But even the European Union's "rapid alert system" is imperfect. Additional action is required if the continent is to avoid catastrophes.

Read more.
I had planned to leave discussion of the tainted food issue to other bloggers, but this morning Dave Schuler (who is giving daily updates on the pet food recalls) informed me that:
We still need to trace the distribution chain of the [contaminated] rice gluten (not to mention the corn gluten). It's possible that the rice gluten was used in baby food.
The contaminated food has already entered the human food chain:
[...] About 45 [California] residents ate pork from hogs that consumed animal feed laced with melamine from China. Melamine is used to make plastics, but it also artificially boosts the protein level -- and thus the price -- of the glutens that go into food.

It was already fatal for some pets: 17 cats and dogs are confirmed dead, more have likely died without being reported, thousands have suffered kidney problems, and 57 brands of cat food and 83 of dog food have been recalled. On top of that, roughly 6,000 hogs will be destroyed because they ate tainted feed.

The effects of melamine on people are thought to be minimal, but no one really knows. Its consumption by humans is considered so improbable that no one has even studied it.

But they are studying now. What last month was a limited recall of canned pet food is on the verge of becoming a full-fledged public health scare, potentially overwhelming government agencies and raising troubling questions about U.S. food safety in the global economy and in the post-Sept. 11 era.

The Food and Drug Administration, criticized by some in Congress for responding too slowly, is struggling to catch up with the implications of the spread of melamine-contaminated glutens from China to hogs, and the human food chain. The FDA is still trying to get its investigators into China, where a skeptical government only last week assented to investigators' visa requests.

At a time when food imports are growing, and only 1 percent to 2 percent of food imports receive any government scrutiny, critics say the scare reveals the shortcomings of a weakened food safety bureaucracy, the inadequacy of existing regulations and the inability of the FDA, which has suffered significant cutbacks, to protect the food supply. [...]

[...] The FDA is also examining imported vegetable proteins earmarked for human products like pizza, protein bars and baby formula. That investigation, still in its early stages, hasn't uncovered any contaminated ingredients, but the agency, an FDA doctor said, wanted to "get ahead of the curve."

The melamine-laced food reached hogs because surplus pet food—crumbled and broken food bits rejected as unsuitable for dogs or cats—was sent to hog farms and turned into feed. The FDA says bulk shipments of feed were delivered to hog farmers in California, Utah, Ohio, Kansas, Oklahoma, New York, North Carolina and South Carolina. FDA officials said they were also concerned that contaminated livestock feed may have been shipped to Missouri. [...]

Even as the tainted wheat gluten cases have multiplied, the FDA has learned of another problem: Chinese rice protein. U.S. importer Wilbur-Ellis told the agency that a single bag of rice protein that it had imported tested positive for the presence of melamine. Wilbur-Ellis imported the rice from Binzhou Futian Biology Technology Co. in China's Shandong province. In the U.S., the protein went to five U.S. pet food makers in Utah, New York, Kansas and Missouri.

While the FDA has targeted select states for hog inspections, the pet food recall and the large number of sick cats and dogs have overwhelmed state agencies that often only investigate a dozen pet food complaints a year. The FDA says about 400 employees across the country are collecting pet food samples, monitoring the recalls' effectiveness and preparing complaints.

The investigation's progress in Illinois alone illustrates the problem.

About half of the 32 FDA investigators in the state have worked on responding to more than 500 complaints of sick or deceased dogs and cats since the recalls began March 16. They must collect medical records from veterinarians and gather samples of contaminated pet food.

The office is also involved in recall effectiveness. "It's very taxing on our resources," said Scott MacIntire, director of the FDA's Chicago office, which oversees state operations.

MacIntire said his office is investigating a shipment of rice protein concentrate imported to Illinois and potentially used in a human product.

Nationwide, the FDA has only enough inspectors to check 1 percent to 2 percent of the 8.9 million imported food shipments in 2006.

"We don't have the resources or the capabilities to test every single shipment of every single food item that crosses into our country or into our state borders," said Frank Busta, director of the National Center for Food Protection and Defense.

Stupak is among a small number in Congress who for several years have pressed for stiffer food safety regulations. He said legislation likely to pass this year could include a provision giving the FDA authority to order food processors to recall questionable items.

Currently, the FDA can issue mandatory recall orders only for baby formula [...]

Read more
The foreign relations angle is so obvious as to scarcely need comment. If Beijing does not cooperate in full with the FDA in the coming week, the US Department of State needs to lodge a diplomatic protest -- and the Bush administration needs to follow up with strong action if the Chinese continue to be obstructive.

We are staring down the barrel of a tragedy that could make the SARS epidemic look like nothing. But last week, in a communication with me about the first article in this post, Dave holds US food importers responsible as well:
One of the aspects that I find most troubling in all of this is that so many companies apparently see no need to do due diligence and actually know anything about their overseas suppliers. As best as I can tell they're judging by price lists alone. Quality, reliability, etc. play little role.

[...] China is, in effect, operating as one huge monopoly. We have no idea what their costs of production are and, in all probability, neither do they. All we see is prices and it's not clear, at least to me, how price signals are communicated in a command economy.
To which I can only add, "a very opaque monopoly."

Noon Update
From today's Washington Post:

FDA, USDA Won't Recall Pork Over Tainted Pet Food
Two federal agencies said yesterday that a contining investigation affirms that the risk to humans from hogs that may have eaten contaminated pet food is very low and that no recall is warranted.
The agencies couldn't have thrown together studies so quickly to determine the harm to humans from ingesting processed pork products that contain melamine.

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