In Role Reversal, China Blocks Some U.S. Meat

By Ariana Eunjung Cha and Renae Merle
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 15, 2007

SHANGHAI, July 15 -- China announced Saturday that it was blocking imports of some U.S. processed meat that showed signs of contamination, turning the tables on critics who in recent months have questioned the safety of Chinese exports and making good on a warning that it would apply greater scrutiny to food shipments entering its borders.

The suspension affected some of the largest U.S. food companies, including Cargill Meat Solutions and Tyson Foods, the world's largest meat processor.

In recent weeks, Beijing has rejected a number of other U.S. products at its ports of entry, including health supplements, sugar-free drink mix and dried fruits such as raisins and apricots. The increasingly aggressive moves are raising concern that what started as a seemingly isolated investigation in March over contaminated pet food from China has trigged a broader trade skirmish.

"I think there is a bit of a balancing act," said Doug Powell, head of the International Food Safety Network, which gathers information on food-safety issues. "They are trying to keep their own people happy in light of the food problems they have had at home."

The Chinese government said it had stopped problem shipments from seven U.S. companies. Among them, Tyson's frozen poultry products were contaminated with salmonella and Cargill's frozen pork ribs were laced with a feed additive designed to keep animals lean, the government said. The General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine also said that frozen chicken feet from Sanderson Farms contained an anti-parasite treatment residue and that frozen pig ears from Van Luin Foods USA also tested positive for the leanness-enhancing additive, called ractopamine.

China's concerns about the safety of U.S. meat have long been a source of tension between the countries. China and several other countries banned imports of U.S. beef in 2003 because of fears of mad cow disease. It partially lifted the ban in April 2006. The United States has been lobbying at the highest levels for China to increase its imports of U.S. beef but so far has been unsuccessful. The topic was discussed in Washington in May during the strategic economic dialogue between U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. and Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi.

Over the past month, even as China has moved quickly to make reforms in response to concerns about the safety of the toothpaste, toys, tires and seafood it exports, it has repeatedly pointed out that other countries also have issues with product quality.

"There is no such thing as zero risk. In terms of food safety, it's impossible for any country to make 100 percent of their foodstuff safe," Li Yuanping, director of the quarantine unit's import and export bureau told the state-run New China News Agency.

Saturday's announcement on the Web site of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine said China had given Cargill and Van Luin 45 days to fix the problems.

The government did not specify whether the other companies' products would be banned indefinitely. It was unclear, too, whether the suspension applied only to the products found to be contaminated or whether it was a blanket ban on all the companies' products. As a result, the economic impact of the government's order could not immediately be determined.

China has become a significant and growing market for U.S. meat producers, said Janet Riley, spokeswoman for the American Meat Institute. "We never like to see a market that is closed," she said.

Libby Lawson, a Tyson spokeswoman, said the meat producer, based in Springdale, Ark., was "disappointed with the news from China and are investigating these claims as this is the first we have heard of this development. We received no notice from the Chinese government about this matter. We will work with the U.S. and Chinese government to get this matter resolved."

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