FDA's lax approach to China comes back to bite us
By David Lazarus, Los Angeles Times
October 15, 2008
If we've learned anything watching our 401(k)s go down
the toilet and the stock market take a pistol-whipping, it's that too-lax
regulation and the nowhere-to-hide nature of the global economy leave us
vulnerable to all sorts of shenanigans.
Need more proof? Three words:
China. Food. Melamine.
On Tuesday, the Chinese government ordered all
liquid and powdered milk manufactured before Sept. 14 to be removed from store
shelves for testing. At issue is the chemical melamine, which apparently was
added to dairy products to make them seem more nutritious.
have died and more than 54,000 kids in China have been sickened by tainted milk
products. Over the last month, melamine has turned up around the globe in
candies, chocolate, coffee drinks and other items made with Chinese dairy
products. Some ended up on American store shelves.
Although many U.S.
consumers may not realize it, China is our third-biggest food supplier, after
Canada and Mexico.
Melamine, which is used to make plastics and
fertilizer, is nontoxic. But it can combine with other chemicals in the body to
form crystals that damage the kidneys and cause other problems.
melamine is rich in nitrogen, it can falsely register as protein in food-quality
tests. This has prompted some unscrupulous Chinese manufacturers to spike dairy
products with the chemical in hopes of making their goods seem more nutritious,
as was the case last year when melamine in pet food sickened or killed thousands
of cats and dogs.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has recalled a
small number of Chinese-made products. But some lawmakers and consumer advocates
say the FDA's measures don't go far enough and have been too slow in
"As soon as this started happening, we called for a ban on all
dairy products from China," said Tony Corbo, senior food lobbyist at Food &
Water Watch, a Washington advocacy group. "We never got a response from the
He said his organization was shocked by a recent announcement
from the FDA warning consumers not to go anywhere near Chinese-made baby formula
but saying that small amounts of melamine in other food products "do not raise
"I don't think anyone knows if these levels are dangerous or
not dangerous," Corbo said. "The FDA did a very quick analysis and came up with
a safety standard that may not be realistic."
The agency has determined
that 2.5 parts per million represents a "tolerable" maximum amount of melamine
that can be safely consumed by adults. But that's far less than some tainted
products that have made it to U.S. store shelves.
Last month, the
California Department of Public Health warned
people not to eat White Rabbit candy imported from China by a San Francisco Bay
Area company. Some candies tested by officials contained melamine levels of as
much as 520 parts per million.
Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's
food safety program, said the agency was "looking very closely at imported
products that contain milk products from China" but "we have not seen a big
problem in the U.S."
He conceded, though, that the 520 parts per million
found by California officials was worrisome. "Five hundred is way beyond what we
would consider to be safe," he said.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut
Democrat who heads a House subcommittee that oversees FDA funding, said the
agency should have followed the European Union in swiftly moving to ban all
products potentially contaminated with melamine until the scope of the problem
could be determined.
"The FDA has chosen to establish an acceptable level
for melamine in food in an attempt to convince consumers that it is not
harmful," she said. "Not only is this an insult to consumers, but it would
appear that the FDA is condoning the intentional contamination of
I don't know if I'd go that far, but I agree that it's better for
authorities to overreact, rather than sit on their hands, when people's lives
are possibly in danger.
Most of us had never heard of melamine before
pets started succumbing to food containing tainted wheat gluten from China. As
with the dairy products, it appeared that melamine had been deliberately added
to give the appearance of higher protein levels.
Toys, cribs, drugs --
millions of Chinese-made products have been recalled for a variety of safety
considerations, including choking hazards and lead exposure.
This year, a
contaminated blood thinner made with Chinese ingredients entered the drug
supplies of about a dozen countries and was linked to at least 86 deaths and
hundreds of illnesses.
Speaking at a recent economic forum, Chinese
Premier Wen Jiabao pledged that Beijing would redouble its efforts to improve
product safety. "We will make the entire 'Made in China' brand worry-free and
reputable for both the Chinese and the people across the world," he
Similar assurances were made last year when China executed the
country's former top food and drug regulator for taking bribes from
manufacturers. Yet here we are again.
The answer is more oversight -- not
only by the Chinese but also by our own market watchdogs. We need an FDA with
both the resources and the wherewithal to keep consumers safe, just as we need
financial authorities who can protect us from Wall Street's greedier
Beijing can spin all the propaganda wheels it likes. The
proof's in the pudding. And for all we know, that pudding contains