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Why You Might Want to Be a Little Worried About China's Bad Milk

By John Pomfret, Washington Post
September 22, 2008

Should Americans be learning something from the Chinese tainted-milk scandal? Should we be worried? Concerned? A little queasy?

You might say, "Not a problem, it's happening on the other side of the globe." Of course the story so far -- four dead infants, 60,000 sick, and the bureaucratic fallout just beginning -- is pretty grim. Asia is worried: Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Bangladesh, Burundi and the Philippines are all either testing Chinese dairy products or pulling them from their stores. Kids have been stricken with kidney stones in Hong Kong.

But the FDA has said we don't import China's milk products. So don't worry.

I disagree. If the scandal illustrates anything, it's that China's product safety system is woefully ill-equipped. And that's pretty sobering news from a country which is the second biggest supplier of goods to the United States.

A big chunk of that is food. From 1996-2006, U.S. imports of Chinese food, agricultural, and seafood products increased 346 percent to 1.833 milion tons. China is the third leading supplier of food (after Mexico and Canada) to the U.S., and the second biggest supplier of fish. Drugs and vitamins, too.

That vitamin C you're popping each morning? Chances are the ascorbic acid was Made in China. In the past several years, the number of FDA-registered drug manufacturers in China has nearly tripled. They went from 440 in 2004 to almost 1,300 in 2007.

Over the last years, the Chinese have had their share of foreign food and product scandals. Chinese-made pet food was laced (like milk) with melamine, killing scores of American dogs and cats. Then there was the lead paint on Chinese toys.

The Bush administration made the obligatory noise about cracking down on Chinese goods. But the reality was that, according to a series of agreements signed between the Bush administration and the Chinese government in Beijing in December of last year, no significant new American resources are going to be devoted to dealing with the problem. The onus is on the Chinese to clean up their act.

Today, I heard Nicholas Lardy, one of the premier economists on China, say his big takeaway from the milk scandal was simple. It was "ludicrous," he said, to expect that a country such as China (still quite poor) could police itself when it comes to product safety. The Bush administration, Lardy said, was naive to sign agreements with China that didn't commit the United States to bolstering its own systems to protect Americans from tainted products.

He's right -- and that's why the spiked milk in Hebei province should worry all of us here.

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