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China's food failures

October 01, 2008

As the scandal over melamine-tainted infant formula deepens, the Chinese government's massive campaign to fix its food safety problem looks more like a sham every day. At least three babies are dead, more than 50,000 have been sickened, and an ever-increasing number of manufacturers and products have been implicated -- more than 20 companies, a long list of dairy products and shipments to at least 12 countries, though not the United States.

The industrial additive melamine appears to have been purposely added to milk -- probably watered-down milk -- to falsely boost protein readings. Melamine was similarly found in pet foods last year that killed and sickened dogs and cats across the United States.

When China made arrests in this most recent case, it appeared that the government at least took its responsibilities seriously, even if its preventive measures fell short. But now there are reports that government officials, anxious to polish the country's reputation with seamless Olympic Games, may have ignored early warnings about the melamine-laced milk, which also found its way into ice cream, a popular candy, yogurt and baby foods.

Given the rapid succession of toxic Chinese products within the last 18 months -- toys containing lead, contaminated versions of the blood-thinner heparin linked to at least 149 deaths in the United States, poison toothpaste and seafood with dangerous levels of antibiotics -- China has run out of excuses, assurances and defenses. As a giant exporter of food and other products, its attitude toward consumer safety is a disgrace and a global health threat.

Newly increased budgets for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will allow somewhat closer inspection of imported foods; at this point, less than 1% is inspected, and far less than that is subjected to laboratory testing. But it will take a continuous buildup of the long-neglected FDA before American consumers can feel more confident about their food. In addition, the FDA must stop giving in to Chinese authorities on anti-consumer rules, such as the ban on surprise inspections.

Consumers also have a right to know where their food comes from. New federal laws will require "country of origin” labels on fresh produce and meats, but grocery shoppers still have no way of knowing which countries supplied the ingredients in processed or packaged foods. Foods imported from China have benefited from U.S. laws that keep people in the dark; how can consumers send a message to this rogue food-producing nation if they don't know they're eating its food?

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