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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)

In the United States, more than 100 brands of pet food have been recalled since March 16 because of a spike in animal deaths, generally from kidney failure. The recall, one of the largest ever, included mass-market brands sold in stores such as Safeway and Wal-Mart, as well as pricey brands sold by veterinarians and specialty retailers.

Why the food is killing pets remains a focus of investigation, but the FDA and a manufacturer in South Africa have found that several bulk ingredients shipped from China, including wheat gluten and rice-protein concentrate, were contaminated with an industrial chemical called melamine.

Last week, concern about animal safety transformed into a concern about risk to people. California state officials said melamine had been found in livestock feed at a hog and could pose a "minimal" health risk to people who ate pork from there. Wheat gluten is also commonly used in breads, cereals and other foods for human consumption, but contamination has not been found in such U.S. products.

The investigations are unearthing details of the food chain that were previously a mystery to most Americans, including the international dealings that determine how ingredients make their way into the food supply. U.S. companies are under relentless pressure to cut costs, in part from consumers who demand low prices, and obtaining cheap ingredients from China has become an important strategy for many of them.

In China, meanwhile, the government has found that companies have cut corners in virtually every aspect of food production and packaging, including improper use of fertilizer, unsanitary packing and poor refrigeration of dairy products.

William O'Brien, president of Hami Food of Beijing, which transports food for the McDonald's restaurant chain and other multinational companies in China, said in some of his competitors' operations, "chilled and frozen products very often come in taxi cabs or in vans -- not under properly controlled conditions. That is something that people should worry about."

Not surprisingly, food-related poisonings are a common occurrence.

Last year, farmers raising duck eggs were found to have used a red dye so the yolks would look reddish instead of yellow, fetching a higher price. The dye turned out to be a cancer-causing substance not approved for human consumption. In Shanghai, 300 people were poisoned by a chemical additive in pork.

The Chinese government has undertaken a major overhaul of its monitoring system by dispatching state inspectors to every province, launching spot inspections at supermarkets, and firing a number of corrupt officials.

"After these incidents, Chinese consumers began to ask, 'What can we eat?' They no longer had any confidence in the safety of their food," said Hu Dinghuan, a food-safety expert at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, a think tank linked to the Chinese government.

Henk Bekedam, the World Health Organization representative in China, said the situation is complicated by poor coordination among 17 government agencies involved in food safety.

In the United States and Europe, food is identified by lot numbers that can often help authorities pinpoint problems. And increasingly, food producers in developed countries are under pressure to keep records that allow the tracing of problem ingredients to individual farms.

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