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Tainted Chinese Imports Common
U.S. agricultural exports to China have grown to more than $5 billion a year-- a fraction of last year's $232 billion U.S. trade deficit with China but a number that has enormous growth potential, given the Chinese economy's 10 percent growth rate and its billion-plus consumers.
Trading with the largely unregulated Chinese marketplace has its risks, of course, as evidenced by the many lawsuits that U.S. pet food companies now face from angry consumers who say their pets were poisoned by tainted Chinese ingredients. Until recently, however, many companies and even the federal government reckoned that, on average, those risks were worth taking. And for some products they have had little choice, as China has driven competitors out of business with its rock-bottom prices.
But after the pet food scandal, some are recalculating.
"This isn't the first time we've had an incident from a Chinese supplier," said Pat Verduin, a senior vice president at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade group in Washington. "Food safety is integral to brands and to companies. This is not an issue the industry is taking lightly."
New Focus on the Problem
China's less-than-stellar behavior as a food exporter is revealed in stomach-turning detail in FDA "refusal reports" filed by U.S. inspectors: Juices and fruits rejected as "filthy." Prunes tinted with chemical dyes not approved for human consumption. Frozen breaded shrimp preserved with nitrofuran, an antibacterial that can cause cancer. Swordfish rejected as "poisonous."
In the first four months of 2007, FDA inspectors -- who are able to check out less than 1 percent of regulated imports -- refused 298 food shipments from China. By contrast, 56 shipments from Canada were rejected, even though Canada exports about $10 billion in FDA-regulated food and agricultural products to the United States -- compared to about $2 billion from China.
Although China is subject to more inspections because of its poor record, those figures mean that the rejection rate for foods imported from China, on a dollar-for-dollar basis, is more than 25 times that for Canada.
Miao Changxia, of the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said China "attaches great importance" to the pet food debacle. "Investigations were immediately carried out . . . and a host of emergency measures have been taken to ensure the hygiene and safety of exported plant-origin protein products," she said in an e-mail.
But deception by Chinese exporters is not limited to plant products, and some of their most egregiously unfit exports are smuggled into the United States.
Under Agriculture Department rules, countries cannot export meat and poultry products to the United States unless the USDA certifies that the slaughterhouses and processing plants have food-safety systems equivalent to those here. Much to its frustration, China is not certified to sell any meat to the United States because it has not met that requirement.
But that has not stopped Chinese meat exporters. In the past year, USDA teams have seized hundreds of thousands of pounds of prohibited poultry products from China and other Asian countries, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns announced in March. Some were shipped in crates labeled "dried lily flower," "prune slices" and "vegetables," according to news reports. It is unclear how much of the illegal meat slipped in undetected.
Despite those violations, the Chinese government is on track to get permission to legally export its chickens to the United States -- a prospect that has raised concern not only because of fears of bacteria such as salmonella but also because Chinese chickens, if not properly processed, could be a source of avian flu, which public-health authorities fear may be poised to trigger a human pandemic.