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China revs up food inspections

A crackdown finds potentially toxic ingredients. Publicity may be meant for foreign consumption.

June 28, 2007|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Bruised by international reaction to food safety lapses, the Chinese government announced Wednesday that regulators here have shut down 180 food manufacturers this year after finding such potentially toxic ingredients as formaldehyde in candy, pickles, biscuits and other common fare.

The closures followed a nationwide inspection of some of China's estimated 1 million food processing plants, most of them small and unlicensed, food safety officials said.

The announcement was posted on the government's English-language website and prominently displayed in the main English-language newspaper. It appeared to be aimed at assuaging the fears of foreign consumers that China wasn't carefully watching its food processing industry. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration estimates the industry's 2005 sales at $250 billion.

Although no figures have been released on export losses in the three months since food safety concerns became public, there's evidence that the series of scandals has taken a toll.

"They hurt very much," said Hu Xiaosong, vice president of food science and nutrition at China Agricultural University. "A few bad examples have hurt all Chinese enterprises' reputations."

Moreover, the government suggested that the problems may not be limited to a small number of companies. "These are not isolated cases," Han Yi, head of the government's quality control and inspection department, was quoted as saying.

This latest indication of serious problems in China's food processing industry caused barely a ripple of reaction domestically, presumably because it was not published or broadcast by most major Chinese-language news outlets.

The shutdowns did receive prominent coverage in the China Daily, a state-run English-language publication, suggesting that authorities hoped to mollify foreign consumers by demonstrating the government's commitment to food safety.

Food safety emerged as a major concern in the last three months, beginning with the news that pet food made in China had been contaminated with melamine, a chemical usually used in plastics and pesticides. Since then, there have been several scares involving food or other goods, including tainted toothpaste, stale rice snacks, diseased pork, potentially poisonous fish and other tainted or fake products.

On Wednesday, Japan became the latest country to reject Chinese products when importers began recalling millions of containers of toothpaste that was reported to be contaminated with diethylene glycol, a potentially dangerous chemical used in antifreeze.

In what appeared to be retaliation for a U.S. regulatory crackdown on some Chinese products, authorities in Beijing this week singled out more American food processors, which have fallen under closer scrutiny. The government said Tuesday that it had seized shipments of orange pulp and dried apricots from the U.S. because they contained high levels of bacteria and preservatives.

The apricots were produced by Mariani Packing Co. of Vacaville, Calif. A call to the company late Wednesday afternoon was answered by a security guard who said the plant was closed for the day.

For all the uproar, some experts insist that China's food standards are not out of line with international norms and that products made by larger companies -- the ones most likely to be exported-- generally have good safety records.

"Most big and mid-sized enterprises are very careful and focus on their reputation," China Agricultural University's Hu said. "They can't afford to mess up."

"I personally believe the whole thing is improving," he added. "Statistics show that food security was way worse 15 years ago."

Back then, he said, only about 70% of Chinese products met the government's safety standards. Now, he said, research at his university showed that about 90% of products met standards, and the current standards themselves were considerably higher.

That still leaves plenty of room for trouble, however.

The results of the nationwide inspections were posted Wednesday on the government's website, the day after they were discussed at a news conference for Chinese journalists. The government said it had seized 23,000 cases of fake and low-quality food valued at $26 million between December and May.

Inspectors found traces of dyes, mineral oils, paraffin wax, formaldehyde and malachite green chloride, an antifungal agent used in fish farming that is a suspected carcinogen

The substances had been used in the production of flour, candy, pickles, biscuits, black fungus, melon seeds, bean curd and seafood, said Han, a senior official with the general administration of quality supervision, inspection and quarantine.

Hu said most of the cases involved small, unlicensed plants.

--

mitchell.landsberg@latimes.com

Gu Bo in The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.

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