Monday, May 28, 2007

Chinese "Duplicate" Foods Killing People

I've written on this a few times after the pet food scandal, but it seems now the story is getting bigger as the National Post has picked up on it and is reporting new information. It seems that Canada is on alert after the uncovering of "fake" toothpaste from China. I'm personally checking the label of any food I buy to make sure its not from China. After reading about contaminated or dangerous soy sauce, gluten, toothpaste, toys, honey, baby formula etc... you have to wonder if the Chinese people who make this stuff are psychopaths? They must realize that these things can kill people! Wouldn't you expect someone exporting fish to know that puffer fish are lethal? Anyone who ever watched the Simpsons episode about the puffer fish would know that (not that I learn everything from the Simpsons, but you get the point, I hope, Doh!). Yet puffer fish was mislabeled as monk fish and exported to the USA from China.

From the National Post...
In our passion for inexpensive goods, we have thrown caution to the wind when it comes to dealing with the Chinese.

Sure they can produce far more cheaply than we can, but the latest scare involving contaminated toothpaste from China shows we're at risk even in our bathrooms.

Health Canada issued a statement saying the suspect brands weren't licensed for sale in Canada, adding in a bid to reassure, "We're monitoring this issue." That was Thursday. It took until yesterday for it to officially notify border control to intercept any batches of the suspect toothpaste.

By contrast, in the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) announced it was testing all Chinese toothpaste from the moment the scandal broke.

On the food front, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) refuses to examine Chinese products any more than they examine anyone else's.

Instead, inspectors scrutinize according to "product risk," rather than country risk. Hence, all raw meat imports are inspected, while an item such as tea gets little attention.

This policy continues despite almost daily examples of made-in-China goods causing harm through contamination or mislabelling.

In Washington yesterday, the FDA warned a batch of frozen fish marked "monkfish" and identified as a "Product of China" could contain the deadly puffer fish.

The agency issued the warning after two people who had eaten soup containing similarly labelled fish had been hospitalized, one with "severe illness." Both were found to have ingested mortally dangerous levels of tetrodotoxin, the poison found in puffer fish.

Just weeks ago, a Chinese-sourced ingredient in a Canadian company's pet food killed an undetermined number of dogs and cats throughout North America.

Inside China, scandals include the discovery last year of a banned dye in salted duck eggs. It had been fed to the birds to make the yolks redder, a colour Chinese consumers equate with quality. In 2004, 13 babies died of malnutrition after being fed fake formula.

It does not take an expert to realize this is a clear pattern, as opposed to relatively isolated scares such as those involving tainted spinach from California or madcow disease in the odd cow originating in Canada.

So why don't Chinese goods get special attention when they arrive on our shores?

"Taking a shotgun approach in terms of all products from a country may not be the most efficient use of our resources," said Paul Mayers, executive director of the CFIA's animal products directorate.

"In our view, focusing on products where there is a real basis for risk allows us to be more effective."

There is a certain logic to that. Indeed, Mr. Mayers offers the example of a problem his inspectors spotted with Chinese honey. Though honey is considered a "low risk" product and admitted with little scrutiny, inspected batches registered what he called "violations." Honey apparently retains pesticide residues.

After increased scrutiny throughout 2006, no further "violations" were spotted.

But many experts say the problem has become so acute with China a new approach is needed.

One is offered by Mansel Griffiths, director of the Canadian Research Institute for Food Safety at the University of Guelph, who says Canadian officials need to work with the authorities of problem prone countries to identify safe suppliers, who would then be licensed.

"We license importers, but we should be going a couple of steps further back and license companies to export to Canada," he said. "Because if something does go wrong, we need to know as quickly as possible where it came from." The European Union is moving in such a direction.

Some sort of effective response is needed quickly because Chinese food exports to Canada are growing rapidly: $777-million worth last year, up 30% from a decade earlier. Top of the list: fish and seafood; preserved food; edible fruits and nuts; prepared meat and fish; and vegetables.

Apologists for China say its government is seeking to improve its oversight bureaucracy. But at the heart of the problem is the ruling Communist party's disregard for community welfare as it seeks the fastest possible economic growth.

Indeed, China is on the verge of becoming the world's biggest polluter, despite having a far smaller industrial base than the United States.

China has also been ruthless in protecting its own economic interests. Beijing is a prime mover in the UN Security Council in scuttling Western-led proposals to protest genocide in Darfur by disciplining the Sudanese. This is because Sudan is an important supplier of oil to China.

Such behaviour by a Western government -- especially Washington -- would have left-leaning activists up in arms. Yet they tend to give Beijing a pass.

Nonetheless, selective banning of problem products seems to get China's attention. It asked the United States yesterday to clarify regulations on the use of some antibiotics after Alabama and Mississippi banned Chinese catfish imports because they contained traces of the drugs.

While no Western country wants to risk losing access to the vast Chinese market, our pursuit of cheap goods shouldn't come at the price of our health.

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