China's Product Safety Offensive

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 7/21/2007 12:32:00 AM
Killer pet food...killer cough syrup...killer tires...the news nowadays seems to focus on the dangers posed by products emanating from the Middle Kingdom. As the world's largest exporter of goods, the Chinese are understandably keen on clearing the taint that products Made in China suffer from widespread safety issues. The Chinese leadership is taking a dual approach to this issue according to the International Herald Tribune by increasing regulatory standards and emphasizing that 99% of Chinese exports are safe:
After months of worrisome product-safety recalls and reports about problem Chinese goods, Beijing has gone on the offensive, trying to show that regulators here are moving swiftly to ease global worries about the quality and safety of exports from China.

On Friday, the government acknowledged that several Chinese companies had exported seafood tainted with banned chemicals to the United States. Regulators said they had not caught the problem because several seafood suppliers were not registered with the government's quality inspectors.

Regulators in Beijing also said they had revoked the licenses of three companies that had exported tainted pet food ingredients and mislabeled drug ingredients to the United States and other parts of the world.

Those products have been blamed for injuring or killing thousands of pets in the United States and also killing and injuring people in Panama and Haiti.

"The Chinese government pays great attention to addressing flaws in product quality, especially the quality of food products," Li Changjiang, an official with the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, said at a Beijing news conference Friday, according to the official Xinhua press agency.

The announcements came amid a flurry of activity from the government this month, mostly aimed at combating growing criticism of the Made in China label following reports about tainted toothpaste, defective tires, exploding cellphone batteries and toys coated with lead.

Although regulators have often disputed claims that Chinese exports are particularly troubled, Beijing recently adopted a double-barreled approach to dealing with the problem: on one hand, the government is promising sweeping regulatory changes; at the same time, Beijing officials are insisting that 99 percent of the goods that China exports meet quality standards and that the foreign media is exaggerating the extent of the problem.

In recent weeks, the government has said it would overhaul food and drug safety regulations and has conducted nationwide quality and safety inspections. This month, Beijing executed the former head of the State Food and Drug Administration, sentenced another former drug regulator to death and even began offering foreign journalists tours of government safety labs and Chinese factories that the government says it believes meet international standards.

And after initially criticizing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for banning Chinese toothpaste made with diethylene glycol, saying the chemical ingredient was entirely safe to consume, Beijing regulators reversed course, announcing recently that diethylene glycol would soon be banned from use in Chinese-made toothpaste.

The chemical, which is sometimes used to make antifreeze, was blamed for killing children and others who consumed cough medicine accidentally laced with the chemical, which had been used as a cheap substitute for glycerine.

"This shows the seriousness of the matter," J. Bruce Jacobs, a professor of Asian languages and studies at Monash University, in Melbourne, said of the government's responses this month. "It seems that the evidence is overwhelming and if they want to keep exports growing, they've got to do something..."

In the coming week, European Union officials are expected to meet for high-level talks about the quality and safety of Chinese exports. Less than a week later, U.S. officials are expected to arrive in Beijing for meetings aimed at improving quality and safety inspections and to resolve what has begun to look like a trade dispute between the two countries.

Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said that it would block imports of five types of seafood from China, including shrimp, catfish and eel, after finding banned chemicals and other residues in the products...

Food trade between the two countries is huge, with the U.S. shipping tons of grain, pork and chicken to China, as well as seeking to sell beef to the mainland. Chinese exports to the United States include huge quantities of seafood, vegetables and fruit juice.

While the Chinese government has criticized the foreign media for exaggerating food-safety and other problems, it said that a Beijing television reporter had faked a story about discovering steamed buns, or baozi, being made in Beijing with cardboard. The government said the reporter supplied a group of migrant workers with the cardboard and filmed them making the buns. The government said the reporter has been detained. At least seven more people have been fired or reprimanded over the incident, according to state media reports.

China also responded in the past week to allegations that one of the biggest Chinese tire makers had shipped defective goods to the United States, eliminating a key safety component, which led to the recall earlier this year of 450,000 Chinese-made tires and a lawsuit that claims the problem tires caused at least one fatal accident.

Beijing regulators say they tested several similar models of the tire and that all the tires met U.S. safety standards. The company, Hangzhou Zhongce Rubber, said that the fatal accident was caused by misuse of the tires.

What's more, China has now accused the US of mounting "smear attacks" on Chinese products according to Reuters:

China warned the United States on Thursday against "groundless smear attacks" against Chinese products and said it was working responsibly to address concerns over a spate of recent food safety scares.

"The Chinese Government has not turned a blind eye or tried to cover up. We have taken this matter very seriously, acted responsibly and immediately adopted forceful measures," said a statement by China's embassy in Washington.

"Blowing up, complicating or politicizing a problem are irresponsible actions and do not help in its solution," the Chinese mission said in a rare policy pronouncement.

"It is even more unacceptable for some to launch groundless smear attacks on China at the excuse of food and drug safety problems," it said.

Echoing the Beijing government's complaints about U.S. media reports, the embassy said food safety concerns were not unique to China, 99.2 percent of whose food exports to the United States in 2006 met quality standards.

Problematic U.S. imports from China -- including toxic ingredients mixed into pet food and recalls of toy trains and toothpaste -- were isolated cases and "hardly avoidable" amid huge and rapidly growing bilateral trade, the statement said.

"It is unfair and irresponsible for the U.S. media to single China out, play up China's food safety problems and mislead the U.S. consumer," it added.

Appealing for strengthened cooperation between Chinese and U.S. food inspection authorities, the statement urged Americans to "respect science and treat China's food and drug exports fairly."

Speaking of the PRC Embassy in Washington, get a taste of the seriousness of this matter for China via a couple of recent Embassy postings:

China, US to hold talk on food safety
Chinese official urges foreign media to stick to truth in reporting
China to reassess food safety supervision system