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New Chinese Take-Out:
Tainted, Poisoned Exports

"China has since captured much of the world's pharmaceutical market, producing 70 percent of the world's penicillin, 50 percent of its aspirin, and most of its vitamins. There are already signs that Chinese-produced vitamins suffer from the same type of quality assurance problems affecting Chinese food and goods exports. Recently, the European Union discovered Enterobacter sakazakii, a lethal bacterium that causes meningitis in infants, in imported batches of vitamin A. In America, traces of arsenic, lead, and iron have shown up in discount products containing vitamin C."
The New Chinese Take-Out
By Michael E. Telzrow
The New American
Lucia Cruz, a 74-year-old Panamanian grandmother, and at least 365 of her countrymen died last year from ingesting tainted medicine. Somehow a deadly chemical had found its way into cough syrup produced in a government laboratory. What Panamanians thought was a harmless over-the-counter drug turned out to be an elixir of death.
Local doctors were mystified by Cruz's initial symptoms. Unable to explain the rapid onset of acute kidney failure, they directed her to a public hospital. More disturbing was the fact that Cruz was not alone. Dozens of other Panamanians were exhibiting the same symptoms. Dr. Jorge Motta, director of the Gorgas Institute, a joint U.S.-Panamanian medical initiative conceived to combat avian flu, suspected an emerging infectious disease. "Was it West Nile or E. coli or some post-influenza disease? Could it run through the population?" thought Motta. Neither he nor others, like Dr. Cirilio Lawson, the general director of the Ministry of Health, knew what was sickening the population. They only knew that it was spreading quickly, and that it was deadly.
While Panamanian doctors and officials worked to discover the cause of the sudden syndrome, Cruz and dozens of others lay in agony as the supposed disease ravaged their internal organs. Wracked by nausea, vomiting, and high fever, Cruz watched as her limbs swelled to twice their normal size. Her painful journey came to an end just weeks after the onset of symptoms. Her doctors, fearful that she had succumbed to a deadly communicable disease, advised her family to cremate her body.
In the following months, government officials successfully identified the cause of the illness as diethylene glycol - a highly toxic organic solvent commonly found in anti-freeze and other industrial applications. Its source was contaminated cough medicine. By then over 300 Panamanians lay dead. Lucia Cruz was No. 17. Subsequent investigations revealed that the diethylene glycol found in the cough syrup had a Chinese origin and that it had been passed off to a Spanish company as 99.5 percent pure glycerin, a harmless sweetening ingredient found in drugs. It was subsequently sold to Panama's Medicom SA, which passed it on to the government lab. Diethylene glycol also showed up in antihistamine tablets and skin ointments made in the same lab.
Tainted Track Record
It wasn't the first time that Chinese diethylene glycol had caused death from ingestion. Ten years earlier, a series of pediatric deaths were reported in Haiti. More than 76 children, most under the age of five, succumbed to acute renal failure in much the same agonizing manner as the Panamanian victims. As in Panama, medical officials were initially stumped. Kidney failure is uncommon in children, even in Haiti, a country plagued by a high infant mortality rate. Matters were further complicated by Haiti's substandard medical facilities. When Centers for Disease Control officials arrived from the United States to lend assistance, they found children suffering from respiratory failure, facial paralysis, and brain damage. They looked to infectious agents, but found none. At the end of a long and difficult global investigation, they discovered the source - diethylene glycol-contaminated medicine used to treat fevers in small children. In a cruel twist of fate, medicine designed to alleviate pain contributed to the deaths of more than 70 children in an excruciatingly painful manner.
As later occurred in Panama, Chinese manufacturers were the source of the poison. The modus operandi was also the same: bulk chemicals fraudulently identified as safe glycerin were sold to European companies, which then passed them on to drug manufacturers. In the Haitian case, investigators traced the shipment to Xingang, China, and the Chinese trading company Sinochem International. According to Dr. Suzanne White Junod, a historian with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, attempts to find the origin of the tainted glycerin were hampered by uncooperative Chinese officials. Her report of the Haitian incident, which appeared in the January/February 2000 issue of Public Health Reports, reveals that the glycerin was not even made in a pharmaceutical plant, but rather in a "fine chemical manufacturing plant." According to Dr. Junod, unscrupulous European middlemen further obscured the origin of the shipment by photocopying their letterhead onto a copy of the Certificate of Analysis in order to "obliterate the identity of the supplier." By the time investigators traced the glycerin to a Manchurian plant, the plant had been closed and the records destroyed.
Humans are not the only recent victims of contaminated Chinese food and drug imports. This spring American Food and Drug Administration investigators determined that Chinese producers had laced wheat gluten with melamine scrap in an attempt to boost the appearance of added protein value due to melamine's nitrogen-rich content. This wheat gluten was added to over 60 million containers of pet food in the United States. The result has been an estimated 8,000 animal deaths, but an accurate count will not be known until the FDA finishes its investigation this fall.
Melamine, a kidney-destroying plasticizer when eaten, is normally used as an industrial coating or as a fertilizer. Its appearance in other Chinese export food products, such as corn gluten sent to South Africa, verifies that its use was intentional, not accidental as Chinese officials claim. Indeed, during an April visit to China, American food safety inspectors had little trouble finding Chinese workers who openly admitted that scrap melamine is routinely used to augment low-grade wheat, corn, and soybean products, particularly those made for animal consumption. According to an ABC News source, melamine-tainted products have been used in the United States as hog feed. Despite a subsequent Department of Agriculture directive to slaughter 6,000 suspect hogs, American consumers are now left wondering whether melamine has made its way into the human food supply.
Death Trade
Recent revelations of diethylene glycol and melamine poisoning highlight the dangers faced by unsuspecting consumers. As Americans are now discovering, the pet-food scandal is merely the tip of the iceberg. Since the discovery of the melamine-laced pet food earlier this year, a catalog list of tainted and counterfeit export products has emerged, providing irrefutable evidence of China's deliberate attempt to dump dangerous products on the world market. From children's toys to toothpaste, the list continues to grow.
Tainted and counterfeit toothpaste with a Chinese origin has been discovered in Canada, in Massachusetts, and in prison systems in the southern United States. A temporary halt to the import of Chinese toothpaste has failed to eliminate the threat, as Canadian and U.S. communities are discovering evidence of tainted toothpaste already in the market. Health authorities began to warn consumers in early July after tests conducted on counterfeit toothpaste sold under the Colgate brand name turned up evidence of harmful bacteria. Canadian authorities then urged consumers to avoid Chinese toothpaste after high levels of diethylene glycol were discovered. At the same time, Massachusetts authorities advised consumers to avoid toothpaste marked "Made in China," and "Colgate" produced in South Africa, after toxic chemicals were discovered in the toothpaste sold in several communities. Despite an FDA warning posted in early June, contaminated products continue to surface, typically in independently owned grocery and convenience stores.
Tea leaves, the iconic Chinese export, can now be added to the list of suspect food products. William Hubbard, former deputy commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, told National Public Radio about one Chinese manufacturer's practice of drying tea leaves by using truck exhausts. "To speed up the drying process, they would lay the tea leaves out on a huge warehouse floor and drive trucks over them so that the exhaust would more rapidly dry the leaves out," said Hubbard. "And the problem there is that the Chinese use leaded gasoline, so they were essentially spewing the lead over all these leaves." Hubbard noted that the FDA only inspects about one percent of all food and food ingredients coming into the country, and tests only about half of one percent.
As if contaminated food products were not enough of a concern, American consumers are now faced with the realization that Chinese-produced toys pose a health threat nearly as serious as contaminated or tainted food. In mid-June of this year, more than 1.5 million Thomas & Friends miniature wooden railway sets were recalled because of lead paint. Neither the Thomas & Friends manufacturer, RC2 Corporation of Chicago, nor the British license holder, HIT Entertainment, knew that the popular children's toys contained lead paint.
Lead paint has the potential to damage developing nervous systems, and anxious parents now wonder how many other Chinese-made toys might contain the dangerous material. Preschool children, precisely the group that is most attracted to these types of toys, routinely put playthings in their mouths. A toy containing a lead base then becomes a vehicle for dispersing the harmful substance into a developing child. That type of exposure may eventually lead to reduced IQ, severe learning disabilities, kidney damage, and stunted growth, among other adverse effects.
In all, 24 types of toys recalled in the United States during the first half of 2007 were manufactured in China. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, 60 percent of all toys recalled in the United States in 2007 were manufactured in China.
"OPEC of Vitamin C"
Most U.S. consumers are aware that Chinese products dominate the shelves of most retail stores, but few realize the dominance extends to vitamins and drugs. Fully 90 percent of all the vitamin C sold in America comes from the communist trade giant. This near-monopoly control of the vitamin-C market caused the Wall Street Journal to dub China the "OPEC of vitamin C," and like the oil cartel it has been accused of price fixing. In 2001, China's four largest producers met to form a consortium, and shortly thereafter began a series of price manipulations undercutting U.S. and European competitors. Volatile prices induced American companies, which were operating in a very different regulatory environment than that existing in Communist China, to file anti-trust suits. In the end the suits hardly mattered; the last U.S. vitamin-C plant closed in 2006.
China has since captured much of the world's pharmaceutical market, producing 70 percent of the world's penicillin, 50 percent of its aspirin, and most of its vitamins. There are already signs that Chinese-produced vitamins suffer from the same type of quality assurance problems affecting Chinese food and goods exports. Recently, the European Union discovered Enterobacter sakazakii, a lethal bacterium that causes meningitis in infants, in imported batches of vitamin A. In America, traces of arsenic, lead, and iron have shown up in discount products containing vitamin C.
Not surprisingly, Chinese authorities dismiss claims that they are not following international standards, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Meanwhile millions of unsuspecting Americans consume both food and vitamins of a dubious nature without even realizing it.
As the level of Chinese imports continues to hit record highs, Americans will be potentially exposed to even greater risks. Even as it stands now, Gary Weaver, director of the Program on Agriculture and Animal Health Policy at the University of Maryland, estimates that the average American consumes approximately 260 pounds of imported food annually. Annual imports of agricultural products currently top $70 billion, twice the level of 1997. But unlike playthings or clothes, the Chinese origin of the food is typically not included on the labeling and American consumers are forced to play Russian roulette when they buy their groceries.
Behind the Problem
What is the underlying problem behind unsafe and hazardous food from China? Is the problem largely localized to a few local or regional officials in the vast country? Is China experiencing growing pains as it rapidly increases its market share over the food that we consume? If it's bureaucratic ineptness, can that ineptness be corrected through more regulation and oversight from the central government in Beijing? Or is the Beijing regime itself the problem? Put simply: should we trust the communist giant to make and keep its food imports safe as it amasses more and more control over our food supplies on the way to monopoly control?
Of course, the Chinese regime blames a few corrupt officials, not the regime. Tan Jiangying, an official of China's food and drug agency, parroted the official party line recently when he said: "The few corrupt officials of the State Food and Drug Administration are the shame of the whole system and their scandals have revealed some very serious problems." Mr. Tan is right in one sense. The scandals have revealed some serious problems. But the problems go much deeper than just a few corrupt officials.
The conventional wisdom, espoused by trade specialists and supported by the mainstream media, is that Chinese central government control over manufacturers is lax. According to David Fernyhough, of Hill and Associates, a risk-management firm providing services to corporations operating in Asia, "The further you get away from Beijing, the more opaque things get, and at a provincial and municipal level, the corruption, the influence of the people involved, quite often officials themselves,... it makes it a very, very difficult environment." Ian Coxhead, a professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told The Why Files that China fits the typical pattern of an emerging economy: "China, like other fast growing economies, is undergoing a transition in which the opportunities created by markets are expanding much faster than the institutions that govern them, especially accountability in corporate and public sector behavior, and governmental capacity for design and implementation of regulations covering health, occupational safety, etc. Under these conditions, fraud and corporate irresponsibility are to be expected, and these traits are hardly unique to China, or even to low-income countries."
Academics and experts may be willing to give China a free pass for its continued transgressions, but it is doubtful that Americans will react with such insouciance now that Chinese imports are nearing the $1 trillion mark.
The reputed lack of central government control to rein in corruption on the part of individual bureaucrats may be a contributing factor in the eyes of most experts, but to focus on that individual corruption is to miss the point. Lord Acton famously remarked, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." The totalitarian communist regime that has ruled China with an iron fist for almost 60 years has had a major corrupting influence on those who wield power from top to bottom. But the power vested in the top officials puts them in a position to blame their underlings for the corruption, deflecting attention from the fact that the system itself is corrupt and will not be changed by replacing one corrupt official with another.
Despite China's integration into the world economy, it remains a communist model of brute authority and moral ambiguity - one that, by the way, is openly hostile to the United States.
Chinese ethical transgressions are mainly designed to gain an unfair advantage over the West, and they show the disdain communist leaders have for people. Since instituting market reforms, China has manipulated currency (which forces them to keep the bulk of the populace at poverty wages), erected importation roadblocks (which lead to higher prices of Chinese goods for already poor people), and employed slave labor camps to reduce labor costs, the most recent example discovered in China's northern Shanxi province that involved 576 involuntary workers.
Communist China is arguably one of the most brutal "post-Cold War" regimes. The central government persecutes Buddhists, Roman Catholics, and other religious groups, and Beijing imprisons an estimated eight million persons - many of them political dissidents. In a display of utter brutality, Chinese authorities openly engage in organ harvesting. According to the BBC, the British Transplantation Society maintains that the organs of executed prisoners are routinely harvested without consent. China's brutal "one child" policy and its practice of forced abortions are well known and require little elaboration here. But it is part and parcel of the lack of respect for human life that seems to permeate Chinese political will, extending to their trade dealings with the West.
Questionable Policy
The extent of the problem with China and the cause of the problem and the low likelihood of change leads us to ask: "Why is our government sitting on its hands while we give a monopoly on production to China for items ranging from food to drugs to clothes - all to a country that is an avowed enemy of the United States?"
Despite our efforts to engage China, first starting with President Nixon, and carried on by successive administrations, the communist giant remains a military threat. The People's Liberation Army has developed and published plans that include an attack on Taiwan. The PLA plan includes threatening the United States with nuclear war to sway public opinion before staging an attack on Taiwan. The plan includes strategies that seek to isolate the United States from its Pacific allies, leaving Japan and others defenseless in the face of Chinese aggression. According to Philippine authorities, the Chinese have begun to establish outposts on uninhabited islands near the island nation. Meanwhile, Los Angeles and Alaska remain in the sights of a highly advanced Chinese cruise and ballistic missile system. In a perversely ironic twist, it is American trade dollars that subsidize China's military build up. Joint venture investments allow the Chinese to enter the U.S. bond market. There they borrow millions from U.S. mutual and pension funds and invest the cash in their armed forces.
The world sees that the Chinese are capable of monstrous acts of brutality such as forced abortions, organ harvesting, religious and political persecution, and deliberate food contamination. Likewise, their push for Pacific Rim hegemony and global trade domination is manifest. Given those realities, is it paranoia to question the prudential nature of allowing such a nation to gain control of much of our food and drug supply?
Country-of-Origin Labeling
As already indicated, you cannot escape consuming contaminated Chinese products by avoiding those marked with "China" as the country of origin. This is despite the fact that five years ago President Bush signed into law the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act, which included a provision establishing the requirement for country-of-origin labeling for beef, lamb, pork, seafood, perishable agricultural commodities, and peanuts. Republicans, prodded by retailers who claim the provision is burdensome, delayed implementation.
President Bush, supported by a Republican majority, effectively nullified the provision by delaying its implementation until September 2008. Political pressure in the wake of the recent scandals appears to have moved Congress to revisit the provision. Until it is revisited, however, there is simply no way of knowing whether your food item originates in China. Not long after the pet food scandal receded from the news cycle, Food and Drug Administration officials reported that rejections of Chinese food products reached 257 for the month of April. In contrast, Mexico and Canada had 140 and 23 respectively. Among the offending Chinese food items were salted bean curds, which were rejected for being "filthy," and frozen channel catfish, which were infected with salmonella and laced with "a new animal drug" considered unsafe for consumption! The FDA refusal-actions list includes dried fruits, apple flavored jelly, olives, frozen seafood, and sardines.
The government's reluctance to enforce labeling laws has encouraged savvy farmers and independent ranchers to take matters into their own hands and to market farm-direct products in the wake of the Chinese import scandals. By marketing directly off the farm, owners can eliminate the middle man, thereby reducing mark-up. While farm-direct sales have always existed, increased consumer awareness about Chinese food products has led to an increase in activity throughout the country, and many Americans are taking control of their food sources.
One U.S. health food company has taken the country-of-origin label concept a step further. Orem, Utah's Food for Health International intends to label its products "China-Free." President Frank Davis recently told Reuters that "It is a response to the (headlines) coming out, and we are taking a position that we are not the only ones reading them."
A comprehensive country-of-origin law would greatly enhance the consumer's ability to choose, and might even result in a voluntary boycott of Chinese goods, providing a boost to domestic producers. But country-of-origin labeling would not be a panacea. For starters, false labeling, a favorite trick of the Chinese, was discovered on boxes marked "tangerine candy," and in a number of other instances. In May, U.S. officials warned Americans to beware of imported fish labeled as monkfish. It seems that the Chinese exporter mislabeled puffer fish, whose flesh contains deadly toxin, as the popular monkfish. The tail of the monkfish is especially prized for its delicate flavor, while ingesting puffer fish flesh can lead to serious illness or even death from tetrodotoxin poisoning. According to an FDA press release, a total of 282 22-pound boxes labeled as monkfish were distributed to wholesalers in Illinois, California, and Hawaii beginning in September 2006. These fish were then sold to restaurants or sold in stores.
Degrease the Skids
But even more important than requiring country-of-origin labeling, or labeling products "China-free," is changing those U.S. government policies that have greased the skids for China's rapidly increasing market share of what we buy from toys to food. Those policies include encouraging American corporate interests to do business with China and to establish operations there, and providing U.S. taxpayer-subsidized and -backed loans and loan guarantees through agencies such as the U.S. Export-Import Bank and the World Bank.
Meanwhile, operations that remain in the United States are compelled to comply not only with an unfavorable tax situation but with a massive regulatory system that squeezes profits and forces owners to pass the costs on to the consumer. The Competitive Enterprise Institute recently released a report entitled Ten Thousand Commandments 2007: An Annual Snapshot of the Federal Regulatory State. Its preparator, Clyde Wayne Crews, lays out a picture of a federal regulatory system that cost Americans $1.14 trillion last year!
America has traditionally been committed to maintaining a policy of competitive enterprise. In 1952, Harold R. Bruce, government professor at Dartmouth, wrote in American National Government: "This policy has its roots both in the democratic political tradition of equality of opportunity and in the belief that economic progress and efficiency are promoted by the spur of competition." Unless America returns to its tradition of "equality of opportunity" by de-regulating the business environment and seeks to seriously address the trade imbalance, it will become increasingly dependent upon China at its own peril.
The stakes are high. The ease with which the Chinese are now able to flood our market with substandard and highly dangerous consumer and food products gives rise to the question - how hard would it be to use the current import system to introduce harmful elements into the food supply as an asymmetrical warfare technique? Given China's record of brutality and military aggression, is there any reason to believe that China might not employ such measures in the future, particularly if its market share of our food supplies continues expanding? For Americans the possibility seems less fantastic with each new headline. Until the United States strengthens its ability to prevent the importation of dangerous goods, and significantly reverses the trade imbalance through a reduction in regulatory requirements and other measures, American consumers will be left to their own devices.


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