In the last few months, a series of reports about the looming dangers of products from Communist China has sparked a public outcry against compromised foreign safety standards. Families at home now wonder whether the fish they eat will give them cancer, whether their medications contain poison, and whether it is safe to drive before buying new tires. With the revelation that 1.5 million Tommy the Train toys have been recalled because of lead-based paint, parents have realized that even their children are not safe from these hidden dangers. On July 18, 2007, Caroline DeWaal, Director of Food Safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, testified that over 80% of consumers now believe that the “Made in China” label indicates that goods “may be contaminated.”
It is surprising that this issue has only recently been swept into the public eye, given the 2006 FDA restrictions on Chinese eel imports. Caroline DeWaal asserts that the FDA has been monitoring this problem since 2001, and despite what she describes as untenable staff shortages the FDA identified leucomalachite green, an illegal microbial, in 91% of tested 2006 Chinese eels imports. According to Scott Gottlieb, Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the FDA tested 89 Chinese seafood samples between October 2006 and May 2007, 25% of which contained “potentially unsafe residues” of illegal antibiotics and microbials. Yet the FDA only announced that it would block Chinese farm-raised eel, catfish, dace, shrimp, and basa on June 28, 2007.
The safety concerns have become so prevalent that all branches of the government are striving to reform America’s import process. President Bush founded a new import safety panel last Wednesday, July 18, to recommend new procedures through which the government can ensure the safety of international products. Congress is also deliberating several bills intended to remedy food insecurity, including the Imported Food Security Act of 2007, Human and Pet Food Safety Act, and the Safe Food Act of 2007. Consumers may soon benefit from increased transparency in 2008, when major provisions of the 2002 Farm Bill—including country-of-origin labeling—will go into effect.
A July 18th Senate subcommittee meeting on the topic proposed the following responses:
• Increase FDA funding and manpower at the border.
• Establish 3rd party safety certification agencies in foreign countries.
• Make every business in the supply chain legally responsible for the products they sell.
• Streamline the recall process.
• Make it illegal to sell defective goods.
Like Congress, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, New York Times, and other media outlets have tried to limit the American fixation on Chinese import debacles by touting statistics about other countries’ abuses. For example, New York Times writers Andrew Martin and Griff Palmer noted that Mexico and India had a greater number of food shipments stopped by the FDA in the last twelve months. Other articles revealed that cantaloupe from Mexico is tainted with sewage, Mexican candy may contain lead, and black pepper from India is contaminated with salmonella.
While these statistics may be true, they downplay the recent role that rapidly deteriorating Chinese quality controls have had in recent months. China may have had a fewer number of stopped food shipments, but it had the largest number of food-related import violations in the last 12 months, totaling 1,901 rejected shipments. Mexico and India were close behind at 1,787 violations and 1,560 violations, respectively. When electronics and medical equipment are added to the number of FDA-blocked shipments, China remains in the lead at 2,723 shipments, with India at 2,260 and Mexico at 1, 876. Clearly, whether China remains in the lead depends on which type of violation is being measured, and this country retains a significant role in the problem regardless of statistical gerrymandering.
A large reason for the individual media attention that China has been receiving is because 60% of this year’s Consumer Protection Safety Commission product recalls involved Chinese-made goods. Up from 36% of CPSC recalls in 2000, the increasing proportion of Chinese recalls demonstrates that Chinese products are becoming more and more dangerous for the consumer.
Bethany Stotts is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a training program run by Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia.