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Tainted Chinese Imports Common
Last year, under high-level pressure from China, the USDA passed a rule allowing China to export to the United States chickens that were grown and slaughtered in North America and then processed in China -- a rule that quickly passed through multiple levels of review and was approved the day before Chinese President Hu Jintao arrived in Washington last April.
Now the rule that China really wants, allowing it to export its own birds to the United States, is in the works, said Richard Raymond, USDA's undersecretary for food safety. Reports in China have repeatedly hinted that only if China gets its way on chicken exports to the United States will Beijing lift its four-year-old ban on importing U.S. beef. Raymond denies any link.
"It's not being facilitated or accelerated through the system at all," Raymond said of the chicken rule, adding that permission for China to sell poultry to the United States is moving ahead because recent USDA audits found China's poultry slaughterhouses to be equivalent to those here.
Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for Food and Water Watch, a Washington advocacy group, said that finding -- which is not subject to outside review -- is unbelievable, given repeated findings of unsanitary conditions at China's chicken slaughterhouses. Corbo said he has seen some of those audits. "Everyone who has seen them was grossed out," he said.
An Official Response
The Cabinet-level "strategic economic dialogue" with China, which began in September and is scheduled to resume on Wednesday, was described early on as a chance for the United States and China to break a long-standing stalemate on trade issues. When it comes to the safety of imported foods, though, they may highlight the limited leverage that the United States has.
It is not just that food from China is cheap, said William Hubbard, a former associate director of the FDA. For a growing number of important food products, China has become virtually the only source in the world.
China controls 80 percent of the world's production of ascorbic acid, for example, a valuable preservative that is ubiquitous in processed and other foods. Only one producer remains in the United States, Hubbard said.
"That's true of a lot of ingredients," he said, including the wheat gluten that was initially thought to be the cause of the pet deaths. Virtually none of it is made in the United States, because the Chinese sell it for less than it would cost U.S. manufacturers to make it.
So pervasive is the U.S. hunger for cheap imports, experts said, that the executive branch itself has repeatedly rebuffed proposals by agency scientists to impose even modest new safety rules for foreign foods.
"Sometimes guidances can get through, but not regulations," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group. Guidances, which the FDA defines as "current thinking on a particular subject," are not binding.
Under the Bush administration in particular, DeWaal said, if a proposed regulation does get past agency or department heads, it hits the wall at the White House Office of Management and Budget.
Andrea Wuebker, an OMB spokeswoman, said that the office reviewed 600 proposed rules last year and that it is up to agencies to finalize rules after they are reviewed. She did not tally how many reviews sent agencies' rule-writers back to the drawing board. She noted that some food safety rules have been finalized, including some related to mad cow disease and bioterrorism. Critics point out that the bioterrorism-related regulations were required by an act of Congress.
John C. Bailar III, a University of Chicago professor emeritus who chaired a 2003 National Academies committee that recommended major changes in the U.S. food safety system -- which have gone largely unheeded -- said he has become increasingly concerned that corporations and the federal government seem willing to put the interests of business "above the public welfare."
"This nation has -- and has had for decades -- a pressing need for a wholly dedicated food safety agency, one that is independent and not concerned with other matters . . . to bring together and extend the bits of food safety activities now scattered over more than a dozen agencies," he said in an e-mail.
Legislation to create such an agency was recently introduced, though many suspect that is too big a challenge politically.
But in the aftermath of the recent food scandals, a growing number of companies and trade groups, including Grocery Manufacturers of America, are speaking in favor of at least a little more protection, starting with a doubling of the FDA's food safety budget.
China is talking tough, too. "Violations of the rules on the use and addition of chemicals or other banned substances will be dealt with severely," said Miao, of the Chinese Embassy.
It is a threat some doubt will be enforced with great vigor, but nonetheless it reveals that China recognizes that the latest scandal has shortened Americans' fuses.