Dinner Table Anxiety
As imports rise, so do safety concerns
Suddenly, Americans feel vulnerable to China. Not on the battlefield but at the dinner table. The recent contamination incidents involving imported Chinese seafood, pet food, and even toothpaste have eroded Americans' confidence in the nation's food-safety defenses.
Though overshadowed by its emergence as an industrial powerhouse, China has a large land area and cheap workforce, which are making it a food export superpower. China sent some $4.2 billion worth of agricultural and seafood products to the United States last year, nearly five times the figure of a decade ago. "We're eating Chinese ingredients every single day," says William Hubbard, former associate commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "You can't avoid them."
You also often can't see them. U.S.-branded applesauce, for instance, may contain Chinese ascorbic acid, which prevents it from turning brown. Americans first learned about imported Chinese wheat glutenused as a thickening agent in a variety of foodswhen some dogs and cats died earlier this year after eating pet food containing contaminated gluten.
The safety issue doesn't arise only with Chinese products. But it is particularly worrisome because of China's pollution, widespread use of hazardous chemicals, and poor enforcement of regulations. In the most recent food-safety case, the FDA began holding shipments of shrimp, eels, and other seafood in late June after detecting low levels of carcinogens in 25 percent of samples tested. But, the FDA says it inspects only 1 percent of imports.
While the U.S. food supply is still considered among the safest in the world, the scares have sent Washington scrambling. House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman John Dingell plans legislation to give the FDA more authority and resources to monitor and control food imports. Sen. Charles Schumer is calling for a new "import czar" to focus on Chinese goods and strengthened country-of-origin labeling rules. President Bush recently created a cabinet-level Interagency Working Group on Import Safety but avoided singling out China as the main culprit.
Promises, promises. For its part, the Beijing government is promising stricter inspections of food headed to America and greater punishment for those who violate regulations. Scott Kronick, president of Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide's China office, which works with Chinese officials on the country's image overseas, says that China's State Food and Drug Administration launched a five-year plan in July to tighten oversight of food and drug products and that the government has already closed down over 100 illegal food production facilities. (China executed the former head of SFDA in July after he was convicted of accepting bribes in exchange for drug approvals.)
Large food companies that rely on ingredients from other countries usually enforce their own oversight. Kellogg Co., which uses ingredients from China such as garlic powder and sorbic acid, a preservative, requires its suppliers to face third-party audits. Kraft Foods, which operates manufacturing facilities in China and regularly audits its suppliers, says its annual quality training with Chinese suppliers will emphasize this year the need to be vigilant for contaminants.
Still, smaller manufacturers lack the resources to check all imported ingredients themselves, leaving that job up to the regulators. But former FDA Commissioner David Kessler says the agency needs more resources because it "is crumbling under the weight of increasing international trade."