Contaminated Food

The ongoing saga of contaminated toothpaste and food imports from China into the US is in its third month but is far from over.

For those of you who haven’t heard about it here’s what’s been happening.

In October 2006, at least 100 people in Panama died from cough syrup contaminated with diethylene glycol, a poisonous low cost substitute for glycerine. In May 2007 the contaminated glycerine was traced back to its Chinese manufacturer Taixing Glycerine Factory. The same month, the US FDA issues guidance to the industry to test products containing glycerine for diethylene glycol. On June 8, the FDA issued a ‘toothpaste FAQ’ for the general public.

In the US, an estimated 39,000 pets were poisoned over a period of time this year with pet food containing melamine contaminated wheat gluten. It seems that melamine is nitrogen heavy and mixing it in makes it appear as though the gluten’s protein content is higher than it actually is. Melamine is also toxic.

As the US authorities got into the act they found Chinese toothpaste with diethylene glycol, toxic fish, juice containing unsafe color additives and popular toy trains decorated with lead paint.

Cut to China. How are they handling this crisis at their end? I have to say, rather strangely. Here’s the sequence of some actions that they have taken this month:

1. On July 10, China executed its former top food and drug regulator for taking bribes. He was sentenced on May 29th. The rejection of his appeal and his subsequent execution appear to have been rushed through.

2. On July 14, China suspends imports of chicken and pork from US manufacturers Tyson Foods and Cargill claiming that they had found contamination with “chemicals and bacteria”. The same day a statement made by a government official (WSJ):

“There is no such thing as zero risk in terms of food safety,” Li Yuanping, a government food regulator, said in a statement to the state-owned news media here. “It’s impossible for any country to make 100 percent of the food safe. The country should not be put on trial because of the problems of a particular company.”

3. On July 20, Chinese authorities shut down three plants, two of them responsible for the pet deaths and Taixing Glycerine Factory. The closures come days before high-level visits from EU and US officials to discuss these matters.

So the Chinese authorities first make a sacrificial lamb out of their former food and drug regulator. Then they go into denial and counter retaliation. Next they shut down (some of) the guilty factories.

In the meanwhile, WSJ reports that China has not ordered a recall of millions of tubes of toothpaste that have diethylene glycol in it.

China’s General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine insisted that diethylene-glycol levels of as much as 15.6% are safe and told consumers not to worry.

And the defiance continues

Yesterday (July 19) the Chinese Embassy in Washington said that Americans should deal with flaws in their own system before criticizing China, citing problems in the U.S. with contamination problems in spinach, lettuce and peanut butter over the past year.

So does the denial. The toothpaste is not supposed to be eaten so how can it be toxic?

This is unquestionably a crisis for Chinese food exports. Every shipment of food imports into the US and other OECD countries is being inspected and tested. Many shipments have been sent back or quarantined. (The same treatment is being given to Indian and Mexican shipments of food by the way). The fallout of this crisis is going to be shuttered factories and lost jobs in China, loss of reputation, possible protectionist bills being passed in Congress and higher food prices in the US and elsewhere.

But if you think about how China has handled this crisis so far, it almost seems like there’s nobody in charge over there. However, there are some mitigating issues behind this that make their job very difficult.

– There could genuinely be differences of opinion between US FDA standards and other countries’ food standards. The FDA standards are not always the most stringent – GM foods are tolerated unlike in the EU – and they shouldn’t be assumed to be always correct. The Chinese authorities seem to have actually believed that diethylene glycol in toothpaste was OK. In India Ajinomoto and Novalgin are legally available though they are banned by the FDA. But even if they did believe that diethylene glycol was safe below some levels, to continue to support them when people in Panama have died of the same diethylene glycol is sheer stupidity. Toothpaste is not meant to be eaten, but kids can and do.

– Chinese authorities just don’t understand how the world media works. It has to be because of the nature of the state-controlled media in China. The first thing they should have done was to shutter those factories. Order a recall of domestic toothpaste. And stop saying that diethylene glycol is safe.

– China is a huge country and controlling food manufacturing plants across the country is unimaginably difficult. China has no regulations around product liability and product recall. Even if they did, they don’t have the administrative machinery to implement it.

– Contaminated food is an explosive topic. The news just has to say ‘mercury in fish’ and it makes the front page. Most readers won’t bother to investigate ‘permissible limits’ or whatever. They just don’t want mercury in their fish. Reminds you of the Indian ‘pesticides in colas’ episode. When you are fighting half a dozen such contaminated food crises at the same time, it has got to be hard to keep it together.

I fear that the US may respond to this with quality controls so strict that it effectively becomes a trade barrier. That will not be good – for China, for the US and for globalization.

Interestingly, diethylene glycol was the villain of the piece another time, many years ago, which led to the formation of the FDA.

This from the FDA website:

In 1937, an outbreak of DEG poisoning occurred in the United States, which resulted from people ingesting elixir of sulfanilamide that contained DEG as a solvent. A total of 107 people died, many of them children. This event led to the enactment of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (the Act), which included a provision requiring that drugs be demonstrated to be safe before marketing.

For those of you who have been wondering what the photo is about and have hung in there for the end of this long post – the photo is of moong dal from our nearby Indian grocery store here in Fremont. My mother-in-law is pretty sure that moong dal should not throw off color like that and suspects some additives. I hope they are adding permitted food coloring.


  1. Anshuman says:

    Nice to see the time that you would have spent to make the point intersting and relvant.


  2. Anuradha says:

    This reminds me of the an anecdote that my economics prof way back in college used to cite: He said the most contaminated food is sold on railway stations, because the vendors knew that by the time consumer throws up, he would have reached the next station.

    But if we can look at this issue beyond the contamination levels, is this the result of too much of globalization? There is hardly anything local in our consumption and mass scale productions and transportations come with their own hazards. I am waiting for the day when they would announce how packaging material is the most damaging thing on this earth.


  3. Shefaly says:

    Interesting developments these!

    On the one hand, they are a fascinating study in relative maturity of governance procedures and institutions in the developed nations who rely now on the developing nations for many goods now; on the other, when juxtaposed against stories within the US about product recall due to botulism/ salmonella fears or the UK’s own mad cow disease, they also show that regulatory frameworks are not sufficient, enforcement and monitoring and a functioning and deterring penal system are all essential to ensuring public safety.

    In this age of hyper-consumption of information, nearly everything makes headlines. Combine that with low levels of scientific literacy and even lower levels of scientific curiosity, panic is almost guaranteed.

    Then again think of how China aims to solve the problem – by executing the head of their FDA-equivalent agency!

    PS: Another thing – it is wrong to say that GM is “not tolerated in the EU”. The governance foundations are different but both systems are driven by scientific evidence, even if their risk frameworks differ. Several products are allowed to be grown and are grown in the EU, even as the complex system of directives allows the farming community to declare voluntarily their regions as GM-free. Elected officials cannot take such policy stances unless they can show new evidence of harm by GM crops.


  4. Basab says:

    Shefaly, you’re right. I should have said that GM is ‘less’ tolerated in the EU.

    Anuradha, globalization of food is seeing a backlash in the US, at least in California as you have correctly divined. Local supermarkets promote locally grown produce. Farmer’s markets are very crowded. Fresher in-season food, typically organic is getting a lot of followers.

    Or grow your own if you can. My wife and I both grew up with kitchen gardens and we are now fortunate to have a veggie patch in our backyard. Those veggies, we are absolutely sure, are fresh and have no additives.

    The other interesting aspect of this ‘Know your food’ (borrowed from Know your customer!) is that meat-eaters generally will end up eating a more complex cocktail of chemicals since animals are higher up in the food chain than plants. Something for non-veg people to think about.


  5. Shefaly says:

    Basab: Thanks. Institutionally GM is acceptable and widely so in Europe. But there is an interesting dichotomy in public attitudes to GM in Europe. The public accepts medical applications (e.g. GM insulin, GM blood etc) of genetic engineering but not food applications. To me, this is a gaping hole in logical thinking but that is how the cookie crumbles.

    Several economic arguments also demonstrate that local produce may be considered superior for warm-afterglow purposes but is not always so in environmental terms. Tomatoes grown in green houses in the UK are environmentally more damaging than those brought in from Spain. Likewise it has been demonstrated that supermarkets actually reduce pollution by trucking large quantities over long distances than farmers’ markets which see many small shippers carry small produce in their small trucks frequently over small to medium distances.

    The problem with these arguments is that they are too complex to be popularly comprehensible. So urban myths thrive in the face of any amount of scientific evidence to the contrary…


  6. Anuradha says:

    Basab, Thanks for giving the phrase ‘Know your Food’…:-)


  7. Shefaly says:

    As new evidence on GMOs goes, this willl interest your readers:



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