Rising Chinese Imports Draw
Safety Activists’ Concerns

The market for imported food from China has exploded in recent years, creating worries stateside.

By Kerry Davis

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China didn’t become a powerhouse food trader until 2001 when it joined the World Trade Organization. Since then, it has nearly tripled its food exports to the U.S., providing 78 percent of the tilapia we eat, 70 percent of the apple juice concentrate we consume and about 90 percent of the Vitamin C we take.

Food safety activists say that the increasing use of cheaper Chinese ingredients poses a risk to Americans’ health because of China’s history of lax health regulations and food safety cover-ups.

Among the concerns:

● China ranks third among U.S. trade partners — after India and Mexico — in food shipments rejected at our borders, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

● Internal scandals have rocked the country. Six babies died and hundreds of thousands were sickened in China in 2008 when manufacturers added melamine, a chemical used in plastics and fertilizer, to infant formula. In 2010, arrests were made after repeated discoveries of pig meat tainted with clenbuterol, a banned chemical that accelerates lean muscle growth in animals but can cause cancer in humans. Also in 2010, scores of Chinese got sick and were hospitalized from a chemical used to wash crayfish.

● Some of China’s contaminants have already made it into American products. Pets here died in 2007 after eating food that contained an ingredient from China that had been adulterated with melamine. The chemical is still showing up: FDA data shows that 363 Chinese food shipments have been turned away since 2008 for suspicion of containing the melamine. Cocoa is the most common ingredient on the list.

● About 50 FDA facility inspections were completed in China in fiscal 2010. Findings included: a company processing barley, goji berries and onions that was using equipment not designed to be sanitized; a spice manufacturer exporting whole chilies that did not have water hot enough to kill bacteria when workers washed their hands; and canning factories that did not imprint production dates and times on their cans and bottles.

● In 2009, FDA inspectors discovered a Chinese manufacturer of canned pet food that falsified or misrepresented temperature recordings and lied during a previous inspection. The manufacturer, which was producing the pet food for an American company, left residual meat on a meat slicer and loose wires on a machine used to cut vegetables.

● Imported ingredients put into processed foods in the U.S. are not identified by their country of origin on the finished product label. As a result, Americans don’t know if foods processed in the U.S. contain Chinese — or any other country’s — ingredients.

● It’s too early to determine if the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 will improve the situation with regard to Chinese imports. The FDA said in June that it lacks the resources to fully comply with the law’s requirement for more overseas inspections — more than 19,000 inspections by year six of the plan. Instead, the agency announced a new import strategy that would involve studying other countries’ food safety systems and entering into agreements with countries whose plans are similar to the U.S. system. The FDA would then be less likely to scrutinize these countries’ goods and could shift its resources to do more inspections involving higher risk countries. It is unclear if the FDA plans to study China.

News21 reporter Brad Racino contributed to this report.

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