Chinese Inquiry Cites Need for Product Controls
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
China has launched a nationwide food safety inspection, including an official investigation into the export of tainted ingredients used in U.S. pet foods. The contaminated products are believed to have caused deaths of cats and dogs and led to a broad pet food recall.
Food safety has become a big concern in China, where more than 32,000 people suffered from food poisoning last year.
NPR's Anthony Kuhn has been following this story and joins us from Beijing. Anthony, what did China find out about the tainted pet food ingredients?
ANTHONY KUHN: Well, Robert, a report issued today by China's main food safety inspectors confirmed what some foreign media have been reporting so far, and that is that two companies in China were exporting wheat gluten and rice protein that were later used in pet foods. And they had export contracts that specified that these products had - contain a certain amount of protein.
The reports said that they did not contain that amount of protein and so they added a chemical called melamine, an industrial chemical which raised the nitrogen level of the products and makes them appear to have more protein than they actually have.
The reports said that the companies falsified export document so that they could get around any inspections. It also added that the managers of these firms have now been arrested, and it's being treated as a criminal investigation. It's part of a larger testing of food products, many of which are for exports - things ranging from bread to sausages. And apparently, these inspections have not turned up any more traces of melamine.
SIEGEL: But in the case of the pet food, we are not talking about some accidental contamination. We're talking about purposeful adulteration of food supplies, and then, fraud, falsifying documents. What does this say about regulation in China today?
KUHN: Well, I think the case presents several very clear messages. First of all, China's regulation of the food safety field is still very rudimentary. Also, it speaks to the nature of food production in China. These companies sourced their wheat gluten and rice protein for many smaller producers. And in many cases, agricultural producers in China, these companies are just family-run farms, and so the difficulty of inspecting all of them is considerable.
But, I think, clearly, there's a moral element. It's a larger issue of China's growth. And the government is trying to address this situation in which there's a mentality of let'-get-rich-first and deal with the casualties, the environmental fallout, the human cost, later.
SIEGEL: Do you think, by the way, that when the Chinese citizens read about this sort of thing that they associate this kind of shabby criminal business behavior that's been alleged with the export trade, or might the products that they are consuming themselves be treated equally badly by their producers or processors?
KUHN: Well, there's no question that this is going up the agenda in China, because so many Chinese have suffered from food poisoning. There were nearly 400 food poisoning deaths in China last year, and roughly a third of those were due to chemical additives. Just to give you an example, I went to a wetland area of China to do a report last year and I brought back the local specialty, which were duck eggs. And these duck eggs have red yolks, which are supposed to be indicative of their nutritional content. It turns out that those yolks were now made red with Sudan 2, which is a shoe polish dye.
We've seen industrial oil coating on rice. We've seen baby formula, which has no nutritional value whatsoever. Chinese people are very scared about some of the food products they buy now. And this is just food products. There're also fake medicines, liquors, these are all things that are very lethal and claim many lives each year.
SIEGEL: Are the Chinese cooperating with the United States on this one?
KUHN: Yes they are. U.S. Food and Administration inspectors are in China now, touring the sites, the provinces where these tainted products came from. And a report today suggested that the U.S. and China set up some sort of joint mechanism to ensure the safety of animal feed. And clearly, there's a growing recognition on both sides that China's growing importance in the world food chain makes this sort of cooperation very necessary.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Beijing. Anthony, thank you very much.
KUHN: Thank you, Robert.