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China speaks out on food safety

June 01, 2007|Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Chinese officials on Thursday defended their nation's medical and food safety record and declined to take full responsibility for the presence of deadly chemicals found in cough syrup and toothpaste sold abroad.

The comments come as China faces mounting pressure after a recent series of healthrelated scandals that set off alarm bells around a world that is increasingly reliant on Chinese exports.

One of the most serious cases involves the use of an industrial solvent in cold medicines that is believed to have killed at least 51 people last year in Panama.

That, the Chinese say, is not entirely their fault.

According to the results of a government investigation, two Chinese companies sold a chemical laced with diethylene glycol, an industrial solvent sometimes used in paint and antifreeze, to a business in Spain. The Chinese are at fault for calling the product "TD Glycerin," a misleading name that could be confused with glycerin, a harmless, more expensive sugar substitute.

But the Chinese clearly stated that the product was not meant for medical consumption, the report says. The Chinese also did not know the Spanish firm would resell the chemical to Panama, where it would be renamed "pure glycerin" and its one-year expiration date extended by three years.

"The Panamanian businesspeople are mainly responsible because they changed the scope of use and shelf life of this product," said Wei Chuanzhong, vice minister of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine.

In the case of the tainted toothpaste, officials acknowledged the presence of diethylene glycol as an ingredient. But it is not harmful when used in limited amounts, they said. The toothpaste sold under the brands "Mr. Cool" and "Excel" has been pulled from the shelves in the Dominican Republic, Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

Contaminated pet food that killed cats and dogs in the United States prompted one of the biggest product recalls in recent history. It helped shed a global light on a problem that has long beset Chinese consumers, who have grown accustomed to seeing mass food poisonings and deaths from bad medicine.

In a show of resolve, Beijing this week sentenced the former head of the State Food and Drug Administration to death for taking bribes and approving untested drugs that have led to dozens of deaths in China. At the same time, the government announced its first recall system for unsafe food products.

Clearly annoyed by the bad press China has been getting, officials Thursday also denounced media reports that they said exaggerated the nation's flaws and overlooked the fact that more than 99% of Chinese food exports to the United States in the last three years had met quality standards.

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chingching.ni@latimes.com

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