Tags: China | U.S. | Tainted | Food | Fight

China, U.S. in Tainted Food Fight

Friday, 08 June 2007 12:00 AM

America and China are in a head-to-head battle with accusations on both sides that tainted and dangerous foodstuffs are being exported, which could create a global health crisis.

It began with U.S. concerns over tainted pet food that was linked to the deaths of dogs and cats. Now, U.S. authorities are also concerned about contaminated chickens, juice made with unsafe additives, monkfish thought to contain life-threatening pufferfish toxins, and Chinese toothpaste that may harbor a deadly chemical.

The Chinese appear to be engaging in payback, with claims that U.S. exports of raisins and health supplements do not meet Chinese food-safety standards.

Caught in the middle of the controversy: the American consumer.

Just ask Kenny Grooms. He watched helplessly last fall as a veterinarian tried to save his four-year-old pet cat. Grooms, a technical service engineer from Petal, Miss., had found his cat, named Airport, hiding in a corner and waiting to die.

"His blood work chemistry was off the charts and his kidneys had completely shut down," Grooms tells NewsMax.

Within five days, Grooms' beloved pet was dead. Grooms later discovered that contaminated cat food from China was the likely culprit.

Across America, thousands of other pet owners saw their dogs and cats sicken and die almost overnight due to the same cause.

Now food safety experts are warning the same thing could happen to the human food supply.

"There is a food safety crisis on the horizon," Mike Doyle, Ph.D., director of the University of Georgia Center for Food Safety, tells NewsMax.

"There are a lot of holes in the programs that protect our food supply," Doyle adds. "The contaminated pet food should be the wake-up call for all Americans."

Doyle's fears were later confirmed by a report that about 80,000 chickens and 58,000 hogs had been fattened on feed laced with melamine, the very industrial chemical - considered mildly poisonous - that had killed the pets.

Authorities initially held the hogs off the market in seven states: California, Illinois, Kansas, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Utah. In mid-May, however, the Agriculture Department ruled that because the poison had been diluted with farm-animal feed, the pigs were safe for human consumption. While they went back onto the market, the poultry continued to be banned.

Authorities now believe Chinese producers intentionally added melamine to wheat gluten to make the product's protein content appear higher. Dozens of pet-food brands and hundreds of farms were affected.

China's reaction to the news was hardly reassuring to U.S. consumers. Its Foreign Ministry stated that "at present, there is no clear evidence showing that melamine is the direct cause of the poisoning or death of pets."

Of course, food contamination isn't new, and it isn't confined to imports, either. Just last fall, American consumers experienced a massive recall of spinach after three people died and almost 200 became sick after a deadly strain of E. coli contaminated the spinach's water supply.

Other recent recalls involving possible contamination include peanut butter (salmonella), baby food (tainted with the bacteria that caused botulism), cantaloupes (salmonella), and ready-to-eat strips of chicken breast (listeria).

Even though an estimated 76 million Americans suffer from food-borne illnesses and 5,000 die each year, industry spokespeople insist that such illnesses due to bacteria are not on the rise. Many people in the public believe otherwise, but the perception is said to be due to improvements in detecting outbreaks. "We're much better at identifying it now," says Dave Daigle, spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who adds that current outbreaks are more common in produce rather than meat and poultry.

Stopping outbreaks is difficult because the burden of food safety extends up and down the food chain. It includes producers, manufacturers, and distributors, down to the consumer where careful handling, cooking, and storing are essential. Any break anywhere in the link can be deadly.

Other experts insist that cutbacks at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) have left our food supply vulnerable.

The biggest danger, according to Doyle, comes from imports -- and that problem is only going to get worse, he says.

"It's not just from bacterial contamination," Doyle says. "Toxins are also a problem and are harder to detect."

Doyle points out that cutting-edge food safety technology, which includes seals that change color when they come in contact with bacteria, can't detect the presence of toxins.

It's a problem as big as America's appetite. In March, the FDA detained almost 850 shipments of imported grains, vegetables, fish, nuts, spices, and other foods for reasons ranging from salmonella and dangerous pesticides to unsafe food coloring. With only 1 percent of all food imports being inspected, it is possible that tons of contaminated food enters the American food supply every day.

That's serious food for thought, considering that the United States imports $49 billion in food products each year, including over 40 percent of its fresh produce.

"The amount of imported food keeps increasing and is now at 15 percent," said Doyle. "More than 80 percent of our seafood is imported, mostly from Asian countries. China is now our third largest importer of food, and there are many, many cases of contamination."

The people of Panama know all too well just how deadly serious food-supply contamination can be. Recently, hundreds of Panamanians began reporting strange symptoms. First, their kidneys failed. Then their bodies slowly became paralyzed, eventually making it impossible to breathe. Then people began dying.

The mysterious deaths were eventually traced to glycerin the Panamanian government bought from China last year to use in cold medicines. Instead of being 95 percent pure glycerin as the Chinese promised and as the labels stated, it was instead deadly diethylene glycol - essentially, the chemical you pour into your car's cooling system as antifreeze. Authorities believe that 365 people, mostly children, died after consuming the poisoned medicine.

It's not the first time Chinese products have been linked to massive health problems. In 1988, at least 88 children in Haiti died due to diethylene glycol-laced medicine. When the FDA tried to help the Haitian government investigate, the probe was stonewalled by the Chinese.

In 1995, 50 tons of the counterfeit Chinese glycerin were shipped to the United States. Fortunately, the deception was discovered before it found its way into products.

Authorities say that FDA inspectors consistently find problems with Chinese imports. Just in late April and early May, Chinese imports seized by FDA inspectors included frozen catfish contaminated with illegal drugs, ginger tainted with pesticides, dried dates that were filthy, and melon seeds that had been polluted with a carcinogenic toxin.

To be fair, the Chinese aren't the only offenders. Other countries regularly top the FDA's list of countries whose products have failed inspection and been refused entrance into the United States.

"China is usually No. 2 on the list for import refusals," said Doyle, "and Mexico is usually No. 3. No. 1 varies, but is often India." China seems to be the most inventive when it comes to evading inspectors, however.

"Now it's being rumored that China's been sending a product to the Netherlands, where they stick a windmill on it and say it's Dutch," Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., tells Fox News.

"In the United States, food production is mainly done by large farms where hundreds or thousands of acres are cultivated by a few farmers," Doyle says. "In China, for example, food is mostly produced by tiny family farms of about 1 acre. It's uncommon to have more than 2 acres.

"In order to fix the problem, the FDA is going to have to reinvent itself," Doyle says. "Congress and the administration are going to have to provide the mandates and resources to allow that to happen."

Action has begun. In May, the Senate passed an amendment to strengthen the nation's food system. The measure mandates better record keeping, better tracking, sets uniform standards for pet foods, established fines for companies that fail to report problems, and creates an early warning system when outbreaks of contaminated food occur.

"With the passage of this amendment, we will make our nation's food safety system stronger on several fronts," says Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. Without budget increases and more FDA inspectors, however, many experts don't expect many meaningful improvements.

"The FDA has so few resources, all it can do is target high-risk things, give a pass to everything else and hope it is OK," says William Hubbard, a retired former FDA associate commissioner.

Doyle agrees that a lot more work must be done to make our food supply safe. "The FDA has some of the best food safety experts in the world, but they don't have enough of them. Their budgets have been cut to the bone while other things such as bioterrorism and food allergens are thrown at them - the list goes on and on. How can they keep up if money keeps being taken away?" asks Doyle.

Doyle's conclusion: "The situation is going to get worse before it gets better."

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America and China are in a head-to-head battle with accusations on both sides that tainted and dangerous foodstuffs are being exported, which could create a global health crisis. It began with U.S. concerns over tainted pet food that was linked to the deaths of dogs and...
Friday, 08 June 2007 12:00 AM
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