As Imports Increase, a Tense Dependence on China

A woman sprays pesticides on a wheat farm near Xuzhou, China.

hide captionA woman sprays pesticides on a wheat farm near Xuzhou, China. Some imports from China have come under fire after manufacturers there added to wheat gluten, an ingredient in some pet foods, a chemical blamed for the deaths of dogs and cats in North America.

Ryan Pyle/Corbis
Price Comparison of Food Imports Manufactured in Europe and China i i

hide captionUntil the late 1990s, most of the products listed here were made in the United States and Europe. As of 2007, Chinese companies have dominated the market, offering the products to foreign manufacturers at a considerably cheaper cost.

Lindsay Mangum/NPR
Price Comparison of Food Imports Manufactured in Europe and China

Until the late 1990s, most of the products listed here were made in the United States and Europe. As of 2007, Chinese companies have dominated the market, offering the products to foreign manufacturers at a considerably cheaper cost.

Lindsay Mangum/NPR
Q&A: Monitoring Food Import Safety

  

Former FDA official William Hubbard explains why melamine got through the FDA's food safety inspection system, and whether consumers should worry about imports.

Top food imports from China in 2006

hide captionImports from China of concentrated apple juice and garlic alone topped $200 million in 2006.

Lindsay Mangum/NPR

Toothpaste from China is the latest official worry. This week, the Food and Drug Administration began testing it at U.S. ports of entry after contaminated Chinese toothpaste began showing up in other countries. It contained a chemical used in antifreeze — the same chemical that killed people in Panama last year when it turned up in cough syrup, mislabeled by Chinese manufacturers as a harmless sweetener. An FDA spokesman says no test results are available yet on the toothpaste at U.S. ports.

The FDA is still watching vegetable proteins from China for signs of melamine contamination, a chemical that turned up in pet food and animal feed earlier this spring.

U.S. officials are asking the Chinese to do more to safeguard the food and drugs they export to America. And Thursday, Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt warned that any nation that loses U.S. trust in its exports will suffer economically.

"Assuring the safety of food in large nations is a demanding proposition, whether it's China or the United States," Leavitt said. "And neither of our countries has perfected this process."

Many experts say the problems are a consequence of globalization, and especially of America's growing dependence on China for food ingredients.

The FDA lists on its Web site food imports its inspectors have refused at U.S. ports. Last month, FDA inspectors blocked 257 food shipments from China, according to the list.

"That's by far the most of all the countries of the world," says William Hubbard.

He knows the FDA inside out; Hubbard used to be its deputy commissioner and now works with the Coalition for a Stronger FDA.

Even when the volume of Chinese imports is taken into account, that's a far higher reject rate than other trading partners.

In the past year, the FDA rejected a higher proportion of food shipments from China than from any other country.

The rejected shipments make an unappetizing list. Inspectors commonly block Chinese food imports because they're "filthy." That's the official term.

"They might smell decomposition. They might see gross contamination of the food. 'Filthy' is a broad term for a product that is not fit for human consumption," Hubbard says.

Another rejection code is "vet-drug-res." That means the food product, usually things like fish, seafood and eels, contains residues of veterinary drugs, such as antibiotics and antifungals.

"These fish are often raised in polluted water, unfortunately. So they're given these drugs to treat them," Hubbard says.

Drug residues in food are illegal. They promote antibiotic resistance, which makes drugs useless when they're needed. One drug that routinely shows up in Chinese food imports is dangerous. It's a veterinary antibiotic that causes cancer in animals.

When Hubbard was at the FDA, he heard all kinds of stories about foreign food processors, like the one a staffer told him after visiting a Chinese factory that makes herbal tea.

"To speed up the drying process, they would lay the tea leaves out on a huge warehouse floor and drive trucks over them so that the exhaust would more rapidly dry the leaves out," Hubbard says. "And the problem there is that the Chinese use leaded gasoline, so they were essentially spewing the lead over all these leaves."

That lead-contaminated herbal tea would only be caught by FDA inspectors at the border if they knew to look for it, Hubbard says.

"The system is so understaffed now that what is being caught and stopped is only a fraction of the food that's actually slipping through the net," he says.

The FDA normally inspects about 1 percent of all food and food ingredients at U.S. borders. It does tests on about half of 1 percent.

And official vigilance has been going down — for two reasons.

First, food imports have increased dramatically, from $45 billion in 2003 to $64 billion three years later.

Second, the "food" part of the FDA has been getting smaller.

Shaun Kennedy of the National Center for Food Protection and Defense says no country is increasing its food exports faster than China.

"China has increased overall its food imports to the United States by over 20 percent in the last year alone," Kennedy says. "Going back three years, we have doubled our agricultural inputs from China."

China has become the leading supplier of many food ingredients, such as apple juice, a primary sweetener in many foods; garlic and garlic powder, a major flavor agent; sausage casings and cocoa butter.

China now supplies 80 percent of the world's ascorbic acid — vitamin C. It's used as a preservative and nutritional enriching agent in thousands of foods. One-third of the world's vitamin A now comes from China, along with much of the supply of vitamin B-12 and many health-food supplements, such as the amino acid lysine.

That is no accident. Chinese manufacturers have tried to corner the market in many food ingredients by under-pricing other suppliers.

Leo Hepner, a food-ingredient consultant based in London, says vitamin C is a good example.

"The price in 1995 was $15 per kilogram," Hepner says. "Today, the price from China is $3.50."

No one can compete with that. So most Western producers of vitamin C have shut down.

That's globalization. But there's a hidden price for cheap goods. Earlier this year, lead-contaminated multivitamins showed up on the shelves of U.S. retailers. And this spring, vitamin A from China contaminated with dangerous bacteria nearly ended up in European baby food.

It's bound to happen more often. Hubbard says the agency is overwhelmed by the rising tide of imports.

"When I came to the FDA in the 1970s, the food program was almost half of the FDA's budget. Today, it's only a quarter," Hubbard says.

Experts say the FDA has about 650 food inspectors to cover 60,000 domestic food producers and 418 ports of entry.

The agency plans to close nearly half of its 13 food-testing labs.

All that means food safety depends on the vigilance of food companies operating in a fast-changing world. Many companies may not know much about their suppliers.

Earlier this month, the FDA wrote a letter to food manufacturers reminding them of their legal responsibility to make sure all the ingredients they use are safe. Don't depend on FDA testing, the letter says.

Jean Halloran agrees. She's director of food safety for Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports. She has some advice for food companies.

"I think you have a responsibility to get on a plane and go over there, and see the plant where that's being manufactured, so that you can see for yourself whether there's a polluted water supply coming into the facility, whether lead-bearing paint chips might be falling into the vats of whatever you're purchasing," she says.

But consumers who want to find out where food is coming from or what American companies are doing to safeguard it might not have much luck.

Four years ago, Congress passed a law requiring food to be labeled for its country-of-origin. But that doesn't extend to individual food ingredients.

And when NPR asked major food companies where they get their ingredients and how they test them, companies either didn't respond or said those matters are proprietary secrets.

Michael Doyle heads the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia and consults for Con-Agra, a leading food producer. He says there's a lot of variation in companies' trustworthiness.

"Some of the major brand companies I know are very proactive in addressing food safety," he says. "Some others are not."

Often, he says, consumers have to take a company's word that its food is safe.

"And unfortunately, that's what the FDA has to do, too," Doyle says.

Q&A: Why China Tops the FDA Import Refusal List

Pet food on a store shelf.

hide captionDeadly additives found in pet food has launched a wider FDA investigation into food and food ingredient imports from China.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The discovery of the chemical melamine in U.S. pet and livestock food earlier this spring has triggered a wider FDA investigation into the possible contamination of food imports from China. The tainted pet food is blamed for killing cats and dogs in the United States, and has been traced to two Chinese manufacturers who added the chemical — used to make plastics and sterilize swimming pools — to wheat and rice products to make them appear protein-rich.

William Hubbard, former senior associate commissioner for policy, planning and legislation at the FDA, now works with the nonprofit, nonpartisan Coalition for a Stronger FDA. Here, Hubbard explains why the FDA's focus is increasingly on China, and whether consumers should worry.

The FDA has a system in place for inspecting food imports; why didn't it catch the melamine contamination?

There has been a tremendous increase in recent years in importations of foods and particularly food ingredients. And in many cases, those foods ingredients are coming from developing countries that do not have a strong food-safety inspection system. So the concern is that if the FDA can't look at those food ingredients, they are basically getting through freely.

Unfortunately, with 13 million food imports last year and only several hundred inspectors, the FDA was able to look at only about 1 percent of shipments at U.S. ports. And it rarely looks at food ingredients at all – such as the Chinese imports of wheat gluten (a protein in wheat) associated with the melamine contamination.

The FDA keeps a running list on its Web site of food imports it has rejected at U.S. ports, and the reasons. China consistently tops that list. Why?

China's export market for food ingredients has zoomed up in recent years. Individual shipments of food and ingredient exports from China to the United States have gone from 82,000 in 2002 to 199,000 in 2006. And I'm told by FDA officials that they're rapidly reaching up to 300,000 this year.

What are some of the reasons the FDA has refused imports from China?

A very common description will be illegal animal drugs, and what that means is a processor has given seafood — say fish — an illegal drug to treat either a bacterial or fungal infection or both. The common ones are malachite green for fungal infections or fluoroquinolones for antibiotic infections. These fish are often raised in polluted water, so they're given these drugs to treat them. The problem is, when these fish arrive in the United States, their tissue contains these illegal drugs. So the FDA attempts to identify shipments with these drugs and keep them out.

What is the problem for humans who eat fish with these residues of antibiotics or antifungals?

They can certainly contribute to antibiotic resistance, and in some cases, they can cause direct health effects, such as anemia. These are drugs that are not approved in the United States for use in these commodities, and they're viewed as dangerous, so the FDA attempts to keep them out. When a foreign processor is using them to make their fish stay alive, that's clearly a violation of U.S. law. But the FDA can't go to that country and force them to change their practices.

Why not?

The FDA has no authority to require a foreign country to send us safe food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture can do that for meat. The USDA can say to a foreign exporter of meat, "You must show us that you are making safe meat before you even put it on the boat." But for the FDA, all the responsibility is on the agency to find the problem at the port. And when you have so few inspectors, many problems don't get found.

Some might say, "We aren't seeing a lot of people getting sick and dying because of bad food and pharmaceutical imports." Are we being alarmists?

In the case of pharmaceuticals, there's the recent example of diethylene glycol poisoning, which has been blamed for sickening adults and children around the world, even causing deaths.* It's been traced back to a Chinese firm that apparently substituted a chemical used in antifreeze for pharmaceutical-grade glycerine, which is a sweet-tasting thickener used in elixirs like cough syrup and toothpaste.

Should consumers be concerned?

You certainly need to know that many ingredients and foods are coming from other countries. But I think the food supply is safe. I think we can continue to consume our food with confidence. But the fear is that these examples are markers for an ever-increasing problem. And when you have what some consider a weak FDA, then that actually gives foreign exporters incentives to send us their bad stuff.

How do the FDA port inspectors decide what to look at?

They attempt to use a risk-assessment process that examines problems from a given country in the past or a given food in the past or a given importer in the past. That helps the FDA to target places that have been more problematic before — so they're not taking time with, say, frozen fish from Norway, which perhaps has never been a problem. Seafood from China, however, has been a persistent problem.

Why hasn't the FDA been inspecting shipments of food ingredients?

I don't think anyone was seeing the problem until the melamine contamination happened. And the FDA's resources are so stretched that it had to focus on where there had been historical problems, such as seafood and cheeses and other things. Now that the melamine problem has arisen, the FDA will have to shift resources to look at ingredients. Unfortunately, however, that means it will shift resources away from inspecting dairy products or seafood.

Given the potential level of contamination, can't U.S. manufacturers just stop buying animal or human food from China?

The reports are that the Chinese are selling these ingredients at very low cost. And some reports suggest that they're attempting to essentially capture the market in many cases. For instance, a very common preservative in all of our processed food is something called ascorbic acid – vitamin C. And I understand that 80 percent of the world's ascorbic acid is now made in China.

Are you saying manufacturers can't afford to go elsewhere for these imports, or that there isn't anywhere else to go?

Well, there's certainly the price differential. But I understand that there's only one ascorbic acid manufacturer left in the United States. If that's true, then that means that a processor is going to be hard-pressed to find a domestic source of ascorbic acid. And ascorbic acid is a safe and useful additive to preserve food.

What do you think should be done?

The government has got to step up to the plate and give the FDA more power. The FDA should be able to say to a country, "If you keep sending us unsafe food, we're going to embargo that food or even the entire country until you put in place a protective system."

* According to the Associated Press, diethylene glycol (DEG) was blamed for the deaths of at least 51 people in Panama last year after it was mixed into cough syrup, another case with allegations involving China. Between 1990 and 1998, similar incidents of DEG poisoning reportedly occurred in Argentina, Bangladesh, Haiti, India and Nigeria, killing hundreds.

Edited by Vikki Valentine

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