Han Wei, director of Chinese egg producer Hanwei Eggs, said he didn't know how melamine—a plastic additive not meant for human consumption—made its way into his company's eggs. His firm, he told CNN, never purchased melamine.
He apologized nonetheless.
"We solemnly apologize to consumers," he said. "We apologize to distributors."
He's not alone. As the extent of melamine contamination in the country's milk—and now egg—supply unfolds, apologies have been abundant. Even Chinese premier Wen Jiabao got into the act.
"We feel that though the incident occurred in enterprises, the government is also responsible," he told Science magazine editor-in-chief Bruce Alberts.
Wen's right, of course. Apologies, though, won't end consumers' fears. Because even as tens of thousands of Chinese babies continue to receive treatment after drinking melamine-contaminated baby formula, a key question remains unanswered: Can we trust anything from China?
Not anything containing any sort of milk product, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. On Thursday the agency took the extraordinary step of detaining all food imports from China that contain milk or milk products and additives. Shipments will be held until manufacturers or importers have the products tested by an independent lab in compliance with the FDA's guidelines, and can prove that they're free of melamine. In other words, the burden of proof rests with the shipper or importer, not with the FDA's admittedly limited inspection capabilities. Biscuits, chocolates and pet foods are among the items covered by the order.
From lead-laced toys to toxic toothpaste to tainted pet food, the list of dangerous products bearing the "Made in China" label continues to grow. A brief history: In 2002, the U.S. and the European Union temporarily banned the import of Chinese honey that was laced with a widely banned antibiotic. In 2006, Chinese-made cough syrup, cut with an industrial solvent, was shipped to Panama, killing at least 100 people. And last year, toys with too much lead, tires with faulty valve stems and pet food laced with melamine all were traced back to China.
This year, the melamine in baby formula has sickened more than 50,000 Chinese babies. Four have died. And melamine has been detected in foodstuffs containing milk everywhere from Hong Kong to the United Kingdom.
This month, Chinese eggs containing melamine and fish feed contaminated with melamine were discovered in Hong Kong.
The Chinese government says it plans to go beyond its usual tactic of merely scapegoating some public officials after a scandal. It pledges to overhaul the way food is handled. "Food is a continuous process that begins in the fields and ends on your dinner table," Wen told CNN. "From production to transportation to refining to packaging to manufacture, every process needs to go through thorough and strict testing."
We couldn't agree more. China has hundreds of thousands of small food producers, small toy factories and small drug manufacturers, so implementing that level of oversight won't be easy. But it will be crucial.
Because unless the country convinces the world that its products are safe, China Inc. risks becoming a manufacturing has-been.