Sunday, June 24, 2007


China, a traditional source of cheap goods, has become an alarmingly top exporter of tainted and dangerous products to the United States, triggering concerns among consumers and regulators.

Reports of tainted pet foods, dangerous toys, fake drugs, toxin-coated monkfish and cosmetics, drug-laced frozen eel, illicit pesticide-laden mushrooms and other products have led to recalls and bans and potentially more stringent import and food safety laws.

Thousands of cats and dogs died recently after eating food made from wheat gluten spiked with melamine, a chemical used in fertilizers, prompting one of the largest pet-food recalls in US history.

Made-in-China toothpaste have also been blacklisted, fearing it may contain potentially deadly chemical reportedly found in tubes sold in Australia and elsewhere.
The concerns were compounded by the recall last week by a US company of 1.5 million of the wildly popular "Thomas and Friends" wooden train toys manufactured in China coated with potentially poisonous lead paint.

Chinese-made fireworks for the July 4 US Independence Day celebrations have also fallen into the blacklist, with reports that at least two types of such explosives have been recalled amid worries they could "travel in unexpected and dangerous directions" and pose "special hazards to eyes and bystanders."

"I think we have reached a point unfortunately where 'made in China' is now a warning label in the United States," said Democratic Senator Richard Durbin, a top campaigner in the US Congress for tighter food safety laws.

The Illinois lawmaker and another senator, Rosa DeLauro from Connecticut, held joint talks with US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach and the Chinese ambassador, Zhou Wenzhong, in Washington over the contaminated shipments of food products from China.

They secured a commitment from the Chinese government and the FDA that they would work towards a mutual agreement to improve inspections and overall safety of food products and drugs, said a statement from the two senators.

"This proposed agreement between the FDA and the Chinese government is a significant breakthrough in terms of food safety -- and American consumers stand to be the big winners," Durbin said.

China and the FDA currently do not have a binding agreement on food and drugs, there is no standard safety regulations between the two systems, and there are no mechanisms in place to inspect food production facilities and secure travel visas for investigations, the statement said.

The food safety problem surprisingly took center stage at the high level US-China Economic dialogue last month led by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Chinese Vice-Premier Wu Yi.

Following her return, China promised to overhaul its food safety rules.

"The top priority for building a food safety standards system is to revise as soon as possible the rules for farm produce and processed food," said the director of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, Liu Pingjun, in Beijing this week.

In another sign of official determination to head off growing concern over shoddy or even deadly food and drug products emanating from Chinese factories, Beijing sentenced the former head of China's food and drug agency to death on a corruption conviction.

China, which exports about two billion dollars each year in food products to the United States, is a top violator of American food safety standards, according to US authorities.

In April, for example, the authorities rejected 257 Chinese food shipments -- far more than from any other country, media reports said.

The safety concerns over Chinese products could fuel demands in Congress, already worried about a ballooning trade deficit, for protectionist laws, experts said.

"At a time when Congress is keenly focused on the large and growing trade imbalance with China, this situation could be the kindling for trade protectionist legislation that is circulating in (Washington) DC," said Andrew Busch, a global currency strategist with BMO Capital Markets.

Lawmakers are already complaining that Beijing has been artificially weakening its currency in a bid to flood the United States with cheap imports that they say is posing a threat to some US industries and manufacturing employment.

China is the second largest source of imports for the United States while the United States is China's largest overseas market and second largest source of foreign direct investment.

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