China Says Food Export Inspections Are Effective

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 1, 2007

BEIJING, May 31 -- China on Thursday strongly contested complaints it is exporting tainted food and other products to the United States, saying controls here are improving and U.S. inspectors have approved 99 percent of its shipments over the past three years.

"Ninety-nine percent is a relatively high percentage of suitable goods," Li Yuanping, director general of the government's Import and Export Food Safety Bureau, said at a news conference. "Facts speak more loudly than anything. . . . From what I have told you, you can see China has a very sound system that can guarantee the safety of food exported abroad."

The vigorous retort, which also dealt with toxic Chinese-made additives to medicine in Panama, underscored official concern in Beijing over a cascade of recent reports suggesting Chinese exports are poorly monitored and liable to contain dangerous ingredients. The alarm, which started with reports of tainted pet food, has found a ready audience in the United States, where consumers already are used to hearing complaints about China's overwhelming exports.

President Hu Jintao's government has made good relations with the United States, particularly the vital trade relationship, a pillar of Chinese foreign and economic policy. In that light, the senior officials at the news conference, which was organized by Premier Wen Jiabao's office, sought to reassure foreign as well as Chinese consumers that government regulatory agencies are up to the job of maintaining safety.

"The government has been intensifying efforts to overhaul the marketing of drugs in China," said Yan Jiangying, a spokeswoman for the State Food and Drug Administration. "Whenever there is evidence of a problem, we will follow up on it and carry out our responsibilities."

Yan said an example of China's determination to carefully monitor products was the death sentence handed down Tuesday against Zheng Xiaoyu, the agency's former chief, who was convicted of accepting bribes in return for approving suspect drugs. Similarly, an unsigned editorial in the official People's Daily newspaper said the death sentence against Zheng shows that the Communist Party is genuinely looking after the welfare of the Chinese people.

"The sentence showed the will and wish of the people, as well as the spirit of legal justice," the newspaper said. "It also showed the firm resolution of our party to punish corrupt officials."

Li said reports from Washington that Chinese food exports are frequently rejected by U.S. inspectors have arisen from bad information and "sensationalism." Most of the blocked shipments, he said, were unauthorized and did not go through China's export control system. The truth, he added, is that China's record on food exports to the United States is slightly better than that of U.S. food exports to China.

To illustrate his point, he said that over the past year, Chinese authorities have found salmonella and other toxins in U.S. pork and chicken exported to China. As a result, he said, food imports from the two U.S. companies involved have been barred indefinitely.

"No food-inspection system is foolproof," he said. "It's like an airplane. Flying is said to be the safest way to travel, but sometimes you have plane crashes."

Wei Chuanzhong, a vice minister in the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, said his agency launched a new investigation after recent reports in the New York Times about how a deadly Chinese additive ended up in cough syrup in Panama. The agency two years ago had already participated in an investigation along with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Panamanian authorities, he said.

Wei said the new inquiry found that the additive, which he identified as TD glycerin, a compound containing dangerous diethylene glycol, was manufactured in China's Jiangsu province. But it was sold to a firm in Spain in 2003 before being resold to a trading firm in Panama and, eventually, to a drug manufacturer that put it into the cough syrup, he said.

The Chinese company, Jiangsu Taixing Glycerine Factory, mislabeled the TD glycerin, for which it is under investigation, Wei said. But the Chinese company declared the truth to its Spanish customers, who agreed to the sale anyway, he added. When the Spanish firm sold the TD glycerin to a trading company in Panama three years later, he said, the Panamanian company altered an expired use-by date and sold it as pure glycerin.

"This directly caused the incident to happen," he said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company