"There is an old saying in China that as virtue rises 1 foot, vice rises 10," said Wang, an official with the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine. "Many of the food-quality problems we found overseas, after our investigation, was that a large proportion of them are exporting illegally. . . doing things to avoid and escape inspection and supervision and exporting unqualified products."
Chinese officials hope to stop some illegal shipments by suspending export licenses and publicizing the names of companies that violate regulations. At the moment, the blacklist has about 55 businesses, although there are indications that some are continuing to export.
Apart from these companies, a number of other food exporters said they had voluntarily cut back or stopped doing business with U.S. customers because of the increased government enforcement and political sensitivity surrounding food shipments.
"We do not dare to accept American orders. . . . The risk is too high," said Chen Haibin, director of quality assurance for Guangzhou Hengfa Aquatic Product Co., a large supplier of tilapia, cuttlefish and other farm-raised seafood.
China's customs data show that shrimp exports to the U.S. fell more than 50% in July from a year earlier. Shipments of squid and cuttlefish were also down sharply, as were some agricultural products such as honey, which Chinese beekeepers said was because of tougher restrictions imposed by China as well as export countries. Sales of apple juice and roasted eel, two of the nation's biggest food exports, continued to grow strongly through July.
Overall, food accounted for just 2% of China's $128 billion of exports to the U.S. this year through July, according to Chinese customs figures. Toys -- the subject of numerous recalls -- accounted for even less. Thus far, there is no indication in official data of a slowdown in Chinese exports of toys and most other products to the U.S.
But "if the food and toy problems are not resolved," said Andy Rothman, an analyst at investment bank CLSA in Shanghai, "China's image may be hurt enough that foreign companies and consumers become reluctant to buy computers, telecom switches and machine tools made in China."
In Rothman's view, the overall quality of Chinese exports has been improving. He cites the success of Chinese-produced food in Japan, where customers are notoriously particular, although Japanese consumers reportedly are now shunning matsutake mushrooms from China because of safety concerns.
Rothman added that despite some political missteps, China's government has taken positive actions in response to concerns. It has pledged to spend $1 billion on food safety by 2010 while closing 3,191 unlicensed and substandard food makers and seizing 4.9 million tons of banned pesticides during the first half of 2007. But Rothman also believes that Beijing's efforts will be hampered by poverty, the nation's absence of rule of law and a lack of press freedom.
Zhou Qiushu, general manager of one of China's largest tilapia producers, has no doubt that his government is serious about improving food safety and quality.
Every day, he says, two or three inspectors show up at Shenzhen Allied Aquatic Produce Development Ltd. to collect samples and look through shipments and records. If that weren't enough, cameras placed throughout the factory grounds feed live video of the food-making process to officials in Beijing.
Beginning this month, Zhou's workers have to attach labels with government seals and tracking identification on every box of fish loaded onto containers. Before the containers are hoisted onto ships, he said, every one is now supposed to be opened and checked by inspectors.
"I think the government has racked its brain to improve the situation. . . . The strength of the measures and punishment is unprecedented," he said.
"But the crucial problem is the honesty of the entire society. If the honesty system is not built, even more regulations won't touch the root of these problems."
Times staff writer Andrea Chang in Los Angeles contributed to this report.