China announced a food industry clean-up on Wednesday after exports of a contaminated ingredient in pet food drew global attention to insufficient product controls. Fertilisers, pesticides, animal medicines and additives in livestock feed will be inspected, a cabinet notice said, and an investigation has been launched into the use of melamine scrap, a chemical product that artificially raises feed protein levels.
A longstanding practice of using melamine has come under a global spotlight after the death of pets in the United States. China's rush into capitalism has created a rash of unregulated companies, many of them operating on thin margins, whose temptation to cut corners has sometimes led to deaths from dangerous food additives.
Illustrating the extent of corruption in the regulatory system, Zheng Xiaoyu, a former head of the State Food and Drug Administration, and his former secretary will go on trial on May 15 for taking bribes to approve drugs, the China Daily reported. The weak oversight and spate of safety breaches are increasingly raising concern in countries that import food, or food ingredients, from China.
China has acknowledged that two Chinese companies illegally exported wheat gluten and rice protein that contained melamine scrap. It was mixed into pet food along with another compound, causing the death of 16 dogs and cats in the United States. The companies have denied any wrongdoing. "There's no such thing. I never ever heard of such a thing.
Authorities are investigating this matter," Tian Feng, a Binzhou Futian Biology Technology Co. Ltd. manager, said in a news clip carried on CNN and broadcast in Hong Kong by Cable Television. Tian was filmed in a detention centre in China speaking to two visitors behind a glass wall. The other company, Jiangsu-based Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Company Ltd., earlier denied to Reuters any role in the food contamination case. "Tests for melamine scrap would be conducted in Jiangsu province first, and then in other areas," said an official with the China Feed Industry Association. Industry officials said that melamine scrap was unlikely to be linked to an unusually serious outbreak of blue ear disease among pigs in China that started last year.
Still, the government said on Wednesday draft rules had been issued for pig slaughterhouses, including a ban on the injection of water or other artificial substances to add weight to meat.
REGULATORY WEAKNESS Experts say China lacks the infrastructure to monitor food quality and safety property, particularly as its exports and trade ties grow. "China doesn't have a First World regulatory system, and that's its biggest weakness," said a China-based U.S. official. The official added that there were also weaknesses globally. "Although there's probably a lot of culpability on the part of the Chinese -- misrepresenting products is a common procedure in China to skirt around their regulatory process -- it doesn't necessarily indict their regulatory process.
It more or less indicts the ability to enforce the rules." Importing countries, including the United States, may also lack the ability to test every shipment or ingredient, increasing the risk that some contaminant could slip through the cracks. "Folks are taking a harder look at how fragmented the food safety chain is," said Bruce Akey, director of the diagnostic centre at Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine. He has been trying to pin down just how the melamine and another compound, cyanuric acid, could have hurt the animals.
A U.S. Food and Drug Administration team has arrived in China to help investigate how melamine got into the feed. It is touring Shandong province, a centre for the poultry and feed industry, and Jiangsu, home to many small chemical producers. Washington has considered a ban on imports of wheat gluten and rice protein from China, officials have said. As part of its promised industry clean-up, China will test food, including cooking oil, flour and beverages as well as baby food, and unqualified producers will have their licences revoked.