In May, IATP published “U.S. China Food Safety Agreement: Terms and Enforcement Capacity.” My paper summarized the views of U.S. Congressional investigators who doubted that the Chinese General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) could effectively implement and enforce the hundreds of pages of new food safety rules that followed the first round of melamine contamination of pet food last year, which sickened or killed an estimated 39,000 pets in the U.S. The profit and economic growth imperative of both industry and Chinese Party officials could veto inconvenient regulation when they deemed it necessary. Unhappily, the investigators were right. According to a September 29 article (sub required) in Food Chemical News, former FDA administrator William Hubbard said of the FDA-AQSIQ agreement analyzed in my paper, it “is not worth the paper that it’s written on.”
On September 25, the World Health Organization announced that more that 54,000 infants and young children had been treated for urinary problems and possible kidney stones that occurred as a result of consuming infant formula or dairy products laced with melamine. More than 14,000 have been hospitalized and at least three children have died from melamine poisoning. Chinese companies had added melamine to boost the protein content of milk that had been watered down. Melamine has many uses in the production of plastics, glues and other industrial products, but no uses of it are approved for food.
Following the resignation of the head of China’s food safety agency, China Central Television reported that the government had received complaints about illness caused by Sanlu Group’s infant formula as early as December 2007. According to an excellent September 27 article in The New York Times, journalists who tried to report on the contamination incidents were censored by the government and the Communist Party, whose top priority was to hold a “harmonious” Olympic Games to enhance the prestige of the government and spur economic growth. Now China’s gold medal for holding “harmonious” Games has turned to dross.
Several Asian countries have banned the import of all Chinese products containing powdered milk. United States and European Union food safety officials are scrambling to determine whether their imported foods contain Chinese powdered milk, particularly in products consumed in Chinese immigrant communities. But as food safety inspectors sought to prevent more damage to human health, U.S. and Chinese trade officials met on September 18 to discuss relations between the two countries - a meeting U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez described as “a very robust session with very robust outcomes.” The trade officials had nothing to say about melamine, the mention of which would have disturbed their “harmonious” relationship. And China Central Television reported that all dairy products still on the shelves are safe.