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Do You Know Who Your Next Meal Is Coming From?

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 15, 2007

"Made in China."

Suddenly, they're the three most alarming words in the English language.

Go to any big box store, supermarket, toy shop: When you weren't paying attention (but enjoying the bargains), everything became Made in China, or made with stuff that's made in China, or made with stuff-that's-made-with-stuff that's made in China.

Nixon shook hands with Mao; deals were cut; investments invested. Beijing got the 2008 Olympics; Shanghai got hundreds of glittering skyscrapers. Now some of our American flags are made in China, and half of our garlic, and something like 40 percent of our apple juice and 19 percent of our honey and 70 percent of our toys and 80 percent of our Vitamin C.

Also, diethylene glycol. That's the industrial antifreeze found in toothpaste imported from China.

And nitrofuran, malachite green, gentian violet -- all three of which are known to be carcinogenic -- and fluoroquinolone. These are antimicrobial agents used by the Chinese aquaculture industry, triggering a ban by the Food and Drug Administration late last month on five types of Chinese seafood.

And of course, melamine. That's C3H6N6for those wanting the molecular makeup. It's an industrial plastic that found its way into canned pet food in the United States earlier this year, triggering the recall of 60 million cans.

"These commodities are flowing in our society essentially unchecked," says former FDA associate commissioner William Hubbard. "We're gambling. Because no one's looking at this stuff!"

Not many people, at least. The FDA says it has 625 field inspectors eyeballing food across the country; they manage to scrutinize about 1 percent of imports. But the number of inspectors has dropped in recent years even as an increasing percentage of our food -- about 13 percent by one recent estimate -- comes from foreign countries, many lacking strict regulation. China has millions of small producers making food and chemicals for the global market. "As a developing country, China's food and drug supervision work began late and its foundations are weak," said Yan Jiangying, the candid spokeswoman for China's food and drug agency. "Therefore, the food and drug safety situation is not something we can be optimistic about."

And now this: Buns stuffed with cardboard.

"A hidden camera followed the man into a ramshackle building where steamers were filled with the fluffy white buns, called baozi, traditionally stuffed with minced pork," reports the Associated Press, summarizing a Chinese television news program. "It showed how cardboard [!!!!!] was first soaked to a pulp in a plastic basin of caustic soda -- a chemical base commonly used in manufacturing paper and soap -- then chopped into tiny morsels with a cleaver. Fatty pork and powdered seasoning were stirred in as flavoring and the concoction was stuffed into the buns."

The Chinese government has vowed to crack down on shady operators. It has to salvage the image of the China brand. The public relations strategy includes both defense and offense: Just yesterday, China banned meat imports from seven American companies, citing contamination by salmonella and chemical additives.

One might detect the pungent scent of a trade war brewing.

The former head of the State Food and Drug Administration, Zheng Xiaoyu, discovered last week that it's an extremely bad time to get blamed for any of China's food and drug safety problems. He had been convicted of taking bribes in exchange for helping drug companies evade regulation. Sentenced to death in May, he confessed his crimes in a written statement, vowed to return the bribe money, and pleaded for leniency. He proved unpersuasive; the government announced Tuesday that he had been executed. We can only imagine what he was given for his last meal.

Now, pull way back for the panoramic shot: This is a complexifying world in which no single person can grasp more than a tiny scrap of the economic and social systems that sustain us. We can no longer read the code. We don't know the origin of the thing we hold in our hand. We know only that it has a funny aftertaste.

We have become end users of stuff we don't understand that comes from factories we've never seen in cities we've never heard of full of people whose language we don't speak and whose names we can't pronounce.

"There's a world below our level of awareness that affects everything we do -- the quality of food we eat, the water we drink, the clothes on our back," says Robert Clark , a professor emeritus of government at George Mason University. "They're delivered by systems that are so complex, most of the people who are actually in the system don't understand them."

Consider the pet food calamity. One of the country's biggest pet food companies, Menu Foods, decided it needed a new supplier of a single ingredient: wheat gluten. It turned to a Las Vegas company named ChemNutra that specializes in importing food and drug ingredients from China -- stuff like potassium sorbate, L-Cysteine USP29 and L-Glycine USP28 .

ChemNutra bought wheat gluten from something called Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co. Ltd., in Jiangsu province. The gluten from Xuzhou Anying was contaminated with melamine, the industrial plastic that ChemNutra believes was intentionally put into the wheat gluten to make it appear to be higher in protein. By the time U.S. inspectors reached the manufacturing plant in China, it had been closed and scrubbed clean. The melamine played a role in sickening or killing an unknown number of pets across the United States.

"There but for the grace of God go people," says Hubbard, the former FDA official. "That same kind of contamination could have killed 4,000 or 5,000 people."

More bad news for the China brand: A New Jersey company recently recalled 450,000 potentially defective Chinese tires. And fireworks made in China reportedly malfunctioned at half a dozen different Independence Day events in Northern Virginia, with one errant shell injuring 11 people in Vienna. There's obviously the danger here of consumer jingoism: The demonization of "Orientals" has a long history. In the post-World War II era, "Made in Japan" meant, for a long time, cheap merchandise. It was a pejorative term, until the Japanese started cranking out cars and televisions and consumer gadgets that were flat-out better than ours.

Merchandise from mainland China didn't start arriving until 1980. The country has recently seen an economic boom built on exports. But many of us do not know much about China other than that it's where our shirt came from, and that it has a Great Wall. Historians will say that China invented paper and gunpowder and the compass and fireworks and a bunch of other cool stuff, but many Americans think of the Chinese inventing ways to counterfeit Hollywood movies. We know that there are something like 1.3 billion Chinese, but we'd be hard-pressed to name a single one of them. Who among us, today, can name China's president, or prime minister, or Supreme Leader, or whatever he's called? Here's a stumper: Is China still communist?

Of course there are people who are highly informed, such as George Mason University government professor Frances Harbour, who was so disgusted by the working conditions in Chinese factories that she tried to boycott anything made in China. Her boycott lasted about a year before she gave up. She realized that China wasn't the only country with sweatshops. And she found it hard to go without Chinese merchandise.

"I would have had to make my own clothes, practically," she says.

The problems with foreign imports have put a spotlight on the FDA. Democrats in Congress have assailed the FDA for being lax on food safety. "Food safety at the FDA is a stepchild," charges Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut. "It is nothing about prevention. It is all about after-the-fact."

The FDA has created a new position, the assistant commissioner for food protection. That would be David Acheson, who says he wants to think strategically, identify the biggest risks, try to do more than just play defense.

"Simply putting more inspectors at the ports isn't the answer," he says. "We need to move further upstream, looking at what is euphemistically called the whole life cycle of food."

Acheson points out that several of the biggest food safety scares of the past year were entirely domestic: spinach, then lettuce, then peanut butter.

"Whatever is propped up as the latest crisis is what everybody focuses on," he says. "We can't afford to do that here. We can't afford to say, food safety is all about China."

The ultimate consequences of free trade, of open borders, of the ubiquity of the shipping container that goes right from boat to truck to train to all over the place, remains an unknown. If you're a big-picture guy like Clark, you see the world as a vast petri dish.

"We've been moving around the planet for about 50, 75 thousand years," Clark says. "As we move, we carry with us large animals . . . cattle, horses, pigs, dogs . . . and they all bring their own little companions with them. The horse brought us the common cold. Cattle bring us smallpox. The big difference is the speed with which it all happens now. The speed has increased so fast, and to such a high degree, that it does become a genuinely novel condition on the planet."

The experiment is underway. No one's in charge.

And what you don't know can hurt you.

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