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Beijing commits to safer food

It signs pacts with the U.S. for inspections and other measures. Their scope is limited and enforcement uncertain.

December 12, 2007|Don Lee and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writers

SHANGHAI — In an effort to reassure American consumers about the safety of food and medicine made in China, U.S. and Chinese officials signed agreements Tuesday giving U.S. officials a stronger hand in screening Chinese exports.

But consumer groups and lawmakers in Washington pointed out that the two agreements covered only a small number of products. And the success of the new regulatory effort depends on whether Chinese officials can get producers to meet U.S. safety standards and whether thinly stretched U.S. government agencies can ensure that China keeps its promises.

"Today's agreement applies only to a tiny fraction of the food we import from China," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). "And while it can be expanded, it doesn't cover nearly enough products to restore our confidence in Chinese goods."

Some American consumers have grown wary of the "Made in China" label after a series of safety problems, including tainted pet food ingredients, lead paint in toys, defective automobile tires and toothpaste laced with an antifreeze ingredient. Chinese officials are concerned that their export-driven economy will suffer as a result.

The pacts, signed in Beijing ahead of high-level economic talks today, require companies that export certain foods and medicines to the United States to register with China's food and drug watchdog agencies and agree to annual inspections. The U.S. government will maintain an online list of registered exporters.

China also will implement new certification and testing systems to ensure that shipments meet U.S. standards.

The foods covered are canned vegetables and other preserved fare, pet food and treats, raw materials such as wheat and rice protein used in a wide variety of products, and farm-raised fish and shellfish.

Covered medicine includes some antibiotics, a cholesterol-lowering drug, generic Viagra, human growth hormone and an antiviral drug. Some of these goods have come under scrutiny in the past after they were found to be contaminated with unsafe or unapproved additives. Other products can be added by mutual agreement.

Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said China agreed to help facilitate timely inspection of manufacturing sites by Food and Drug Administration inspectors.

This spring, after thousands of dogs and cats in the U.S. were sickened by bad pet food ingredients traced to China, Chinese officials were said to have initially resisted the FDA's bid to inspect the facility that produced some of the goods.

By the time U.S. officials arrived at the scene, one processing factory under suspicion had been razed.

Under the agreements, U.S. officials will still have to request permission from Chinese authorities to inspect facilities in that country.

"Taken together, these agreements will enhance the safety of scores of household items the American people consume on a daily basis," Leavitt said.

Consumer groups agreed that creating a regulatory partnership with China is a sensible idea, but success will depend on how well the two countries enforce it. A coalition of consumer and industry groups is pressing the Bush administration for a doubling of the FDA's food-safety budget, now about $450 million a year.

"They have got a good framework, but if the agreement is not policed adequately both in China and at our ports of entry, it won't be worth much more than the paper it's written on," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

DeWaal's advocacy group pushes for stronger federal regulation of imported and domestic food.

Some aspects of the agreements raised questions. For example, Chinese authorities agreed to notify their U.S. counterparts within 24 hours of any medications sent to the United States that could pose a hazard. However, the window for notification in cases of risky food is 48 hours. And food may be consumed more quickly than medications are.

A senior official with Health and Human Services acknowledged that the food agreement is "admittedly a first step," adding that its main purpose is for the FDA to begin to build confidence in its Chinese counterpart. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks between the two nations.

The agreements on food and drug safety topped a string of accords announced by senior U.S. and Chinese officials Tuesday. These include taking steps to increase Chinese tourist travel to the United States, which could be particularly beneficial to California, and giving U.S. companies greater access to China's markets for medical devices and telecommunications.

Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi called the agreements substantial and "evidence of sincere goodwill from both sides to resolve economic and trade issues through peaceful consultation," according to the official New China News Agency.

However, Wu said during the meeting that "unharmonious notes" had been injected in China-U.S. trade relations, criticizing what she characterized as politicization of economic issues and deliberately exaggerated reports of China's food and product safety practices.

"These have seriously damaged the reputation of China-made products and the image of China," she said, according to New China News.

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don.lee@latimes.com

ricardo.alonso-zaldivar@latimes.com

Lee reported from Shanghai and Alonso-Zaldivar from Washington.

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