Since 2000 regulators in the United States., Canada and Europe have listed China as the most frequent violator of product-safety laws. But those regulators have intercepted only a fraction of the millions of tons of contaminated foods, drugs, toys and other consumer goods shipped to Western markets.
The filthy and otherwise unfit products include fruits, vegetables and honey; cosmetics containing chemical toxins; products made with milk or chocolate and pet foods containing melamine; shrimp, catfish and eel contaminated with antifungal chemicals and antibiotics; cooking oil with aflatoxins; toothpaste with diethylene glycol. Add to those, counterfeit drugs; tires made unsafe by missing gum strips; and toys surfaced with leaded paints.
Although an embarrassed Chinese government began cracking down on adulteration in earnest last year, the problem is so vast that harmful goods won’t soon be eliminated. So for Chinese products, caveat emptor (buyer beware) still applies.
A disturbing history of peddling contaminated products
In 2007, Chinese-made pet-food ingredients were found to be contaminated with melamine after thousands of dogs and cats, principally in the U.S., became ill, with hundreds succumbing from kidney failure. That led to the largest recall of pet-food products in U.S. history.
In 2008, Chinese milk-containing products, baby formula, chocolates and cookies were found to contain toxic levels of melamine. The European Union instituted a ban, since reversed, on Chinese chocolate, biscuits and other foods suspected of melamine contamination. More than 300,000 children became ill from melamine poisoning, and at least six infants died.
The Chinese government was slow to admit the breadth of the crisis, but the government’s hand was forced by increasing refusals of entry to the U.S., Canada and Europe, and wide publicity. Chinese officials admitted belatedly that “China’s current food and safety situation is not very satisfactory.”
China instituted a get-tough policy, commencing with random investigations at major dairy and food-producing companies, leading to several arrests. A dairy farmer and a dairy-product salesman were executed. Twenty of China’s largest dairy producers were found to have permitted melamine-contaminated milk products to enter the market in 2008, including a large volume of condensed milk and high-calcium milk products. Party bosses and health officials began a campaign to educate the industry on the need for product safety, but the campaign could not arrest the millions of contaminated products already in circulation. That education program continues.
Contamination is rampant
On the trail of contaminated milk-containing products, Chinese food-safety regulators have been overwhelmed. They are discovering a seemingly endless series of new instances. In February, Chinese regulators began an emergency series of checks on dairy producers in an effort to curb production of contaminated products. Some of the widespread contamination they found stemmed from intentional acts, including watering down milk and adding melamine to disguise the fact.
In March, Chinese regulators discovered that the country’s cow peas, including black-eyed peas, were contaminated with the toxin isocarbophos. In April, they found an estimated one-tenth of all Chinese cooking oil to be contaminated with high levels of aflatoxin, apparently because “drainage oil” from cooking was recycled into cooking oil sold to the public. Regulators continue to find filth and contaminants in chicken feed and much poultry unfit by Western standards.
The problem is compounded by the fact that Western companies, struggling to overcome the recession, have often turned to cheaper Chinese ingredients. Unbeknownst to consumers, some of those ingredients end up in branded foods and pass by without regulatory scrutiny.
Moreover, governments in the U.S., Canada and Europe lack the political courage to significantly increase barriers to Chinese imports because access to the Chinese economy, growing at near 10-per-cent annually, is critical to economic recovery.
Western leaders fear more-rigorous import restrictions would provoke Beijing to retaliate by restricting access to Chinese markets. China plays on that fear to keep Western markets open, knowing that a significant quantity of Chinese products threaten the health of Western consumers.
While negotiation may be expedient on a number of other diplomatic fronts, contaminated Chinese products should not be tolerated in the marketplace. When does political finagling end and responsible, ethical and morally correct decision-making begin? It’s a rhetorical question politicians are incapable of answering.