China Food Fears Go From Pets To People

In China, more than 200 million farmers grow a variety of crops on plots of one to two acres, earning less than $200 a year.
In China, more than 200 million farmers grow a variety of crops on plots of one to two acres, earning less than $200 a year. (By Eugene Hoshiko -- Associated Press)
By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 25, 2007

SHANGHAI -- Something was wrong with the babies. The villagers noticed their heads were growing abnormally large while the rest of their bodies were skin and bones. By the time Chinese authorities discovered the culprit -- severe malnutrition from fake milk powder -- 13 had died.

The scandal, which unfolded three years ago after hundreds of babies fell ill in an eastern Chinese province, became the defining symbol of a broad problem in China's economy. Quality control and product-safety regulation are so poor in this country that people cannot trust the goods on store shelves.

Until now, the problem has not received much attention outside of China. In recent weeks, however, consumers everywhere have been learning about China's safety crisis. Tainted ingredients that originated here made their way into pet food that has sickened and killed animals around the world.

Chinese authorities acknowledge the safety problem and have promised repeatedly to fix it, but the disasters keep coming. Tang Yanli, 45, grand-aunt of a baby who became sick because of the fake milk but eventually recovered, said that even though she now pays more to buy national brands, she remains suspicious.

"I don't trust the food I eat," she said. "I don't know which products are good, which are bad."

With China playing an ever-larger role in supplying food, medicine and animal feed to other countries, recognition of the hazards has not kept up.

By value, China is the world's No. 1 exporter of fruits and vegetables, and a major exporter of other food and food products, which vary widely, from apple juice to sausage casings and garlic. China's agricultural exports to the United States surged to $2.26 billion last year, according to U.S. figures -- more than 20 times the $133 million of 1980.

China has been especially poor at meeting international standards. The United States subjects only a small fraction of its food imports to close inspection, but each month rejects about 200 shipments from China, mostly because of concerns about pesticides and antibiotics and about misleading labeling. In February, border inspectors for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration blocked peas tainted by pesticides, dried white plums containing banned additives, pepper contaminated with salmonella and frozen crawfish that were filthy.

Since 2000, some countries have temporarily banned whole categories of Chinese imports. The European Union stopped shipments of shrimp because of banned antibiotics. Japan blocked tea and spinach, citing excessive antibiotic residue. And South Korea banned fermented cabbage after finding parasites in some shipments.

As globalization of the food supply progresses, "the food gets more anonymous and gradually you get into a situation where you don't know where exactly it came from and you get more vulnerable to poor quality," said Michiel Keyzer, director of the Centre for World Food Studies at Vrije University in Amsterdam, who researches China's exports to the European Union.

Chinese authorities, while conceding the country has many safety problems, have claimed other countries' assessments of products are sometimes "not accurate" and have implied the bans may be politically motivated, aimed at protecting domestic companies that compete with Chinese businesses.

China's State Food and Drug Administration, Ministry of Health and Ministry of Agriculture, which along with other government agencies share responsibility for monitoring food and drug safety, this week declined to answer written questions faxed to them.

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