Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Food Safety: So Much More Than E. Coli

This is a picture of scrap melamine, a coal by-product used in the manufacture of plastic. In China, some feed manufacturers have been using it for years to boost the protein content of their products, commanding a higher price, reported the New York Times.

Melamine has a chemical content similar to protein, and cannot be easily distinguished when testing for protein content. However, melamine doesn't provide any nutritional benefits. It's receiving scrutiny in this country because it was recently found in some brands of pet food that sickened, and killed, some animals.

This sort of adulteration, however, is not new, and has a tragic history in China.

Three years ago babies in China’s Anhui province were afflicted by a strange condition. The infants were getting thinner and thinner, while their heads seemed abnormally large in comparison to the rest of their bodies. 170 of them were hospitalized, and 13 died.

The cause? Malnutrition arising from fake baby formula, with protein contents well below the Chinese standard of 12 percent: thirty-one of the products used by the families contained less than 5 per cent of protein. One of them had only 0.37 per cent!(Source: China Daily) Might as well have fed the babies with water.

This is really a major cause of concern. The Washington Post reports China is the world's biggest exporter of fruits and vegetables, and a major exporter of other food products. Some of those products land up in the U.S.

Former FDA officials revealed that last year, inspectors sampled less than 2 percent of 199,000 shipments of Chinese food products.

Among those shipment the FDA did inspect and reject were pesticide-laden pea pods, drug-laced catfish, filthy plums and crawfish contaminated with salmonella.

Other known Chinese food hazards: the cancer-causing industrial dye Sudan Red, used to boost the color and value of eggs. Asthma medication fed to pigs to produce leaner meat. (Associated Press, found on MSNBC.)

As you shudder, let's ask what lies behind these practices?

One source is China’s fractured farming sector, comprised of small landholdings which make regulation difficult.

The AP article goes on to say, "Small farms ship to market with little documentation. Testing of the safety and purity of farm products such as milk is often haphazard, hampered by fuzzy lines of authority among regulators. Only about 6 percent of agricultural products were considered pollution-free in 2005, while safer, better quality food officially stamped as “green” accounts for just 1 percent of the total, according to figures compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Further, China's government "has found that companies have cut corners in virtually every aspect of food production and packaging, including improper use of fertilizer, unsanitary packing and poor refrigeration of dairy products," reports the Washington Post.

"William O'Brien, president of Hami Food of Beijing, which transports food for the McDonald's restaurant chain and other multinational companies in China, said in some of his competitors' operations, 'chilled and frozen products very often come in taxi cabs or in vans -- not under properly controlled conditions. That is something that people should worry about.'

"Not surprisingly, food-related poisonings are a common occurrence."

The U.S is a huge producer of food, so I'm wondering why it needs to import from countries with questionable food production practices in the first place.

I first sat up and took notice of China's food production practices in 2004, when the New York Times did a cover story about the staggering pollution on the Huai River in Henan province. In particular, the monosodium glutamate factory that flushed foul-smelling black liquid into the river - not only did fishermen find a severely reduced catch, many of the fish were deformed in some way. Villagers also noticed their skin burned when they washed with water from the river; the rate of cancer shot up, among peasants too poor to afford a basic subsistence, much less medical care for serious conditions. (Article: Rivers Run Black, and Chinese Die of Cancer)

It made me so angry. This was not long after the fake baby formula scandal broke.

Is China's enormous capitalist boom driving these entrepreneurs to have no moral regard for the consequences of their actions?

Are these entrepreneurs simply emulating what they've seen from some of their Western counterparts?


From the Post's article Pet Deaths Spur Call for Better FDA Screening:

"Several Chinese suppliers conceded over the weekend that adding melamine to pet food ingredients -- now blamed for the deaths of many animals in the United States and possible contamination of the human food supply -- is but the latest technique for fooling U.S. companies into thinking they are purchasing a high-quality product.

"Before melamine there was urea, Chinese traders said -- another nitrogen-rich chemical that was used to give false high scores on tests of protein content but was abandoned after it made animals ill.

"The task of guarding against contaminants in imports has become far more complicated because an increasing portion of the tens of billions of dollars in Chinese food and agricultural imports involves powders and concentrates for the processed-food industry -- including the wheat gluten and rice protein at the center of the pet food scandal. Animal feed imports alone grew sevenfold from 2001 to 2006, the Commerce Department says.

"Such products pose three problems: Their makeup is not obvious by mere visual inspection; they can be easily and invisibly contaminated or intentionally spiked with chemicals that are not on the FDA's standard battery of tests; and their origins are often vague, because they have been through several stages of processing and trade."

Now an increasing number of legislators, scientists and others are saying it is time to modernize FDA's authority to trace the sources of food imports and punish scofflaws -- legal powers that experts say have barely evolved over the past 70 years.

1 comment:

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