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.
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.
China has a long way to go to achieve this type of modern system, said Hu, a researcher at the Institute of Agricultural Economics and Development who is working on a national pilot program to encourage farmers to keep better records.
China has more than 200 million farmers working one- to two-acre plots. Many of them earn a meager living, sometimes less than $200 a year. Studies have found they often have little understanding of correct chemical or antibiotic use.
The marketing of food and food-related goods in China is also dominated by small-time traders. Small farmers typically take their food to wholesale markets, get cash for their wares but do not exchange documentation with buyers.
Their products are mixed with those of other small farmers, making the source untraceable. "The person who is ultimately buying knows nothing about where it originated," Hami Food's O'Brien said.
In response to the pet deaths in the United States, China is carrying out a nationwide inspection of wheat gluten, but its government has refuted allegations that Chinese companies are responsible for the deaths.
Wheat gluten has industrial uses and China has suggested the shipments that made their way into pet food might never have been intended for that purpose. China's General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine said China has never sent wheat gluten abroad for use as a pet-food ingredient. That has raised the question of whether companies that bought the gluten are guilty of misusing it.
On the quarantine authorities' Web site on April 13, an unnamed official said: "If a company used industrial wheat protein as a pet food ingredient and this led to the death of pets, that company should accept the corresponding responsibility."
Investigators from the United States and China are still trying to determine how the contaminated wheat gluten got into pet food.
The FDA said it had traced the ingredient to Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development, near Shanghai. The company has said, however, that it is a middleman and got the wheat gluten from another source.
Reached by phone this week, Xuzhou's general manager, Mao Lijun, declined to comment further about the pet food probe, but said the company "is cooperating with the government investigation."