Backtracking Our Way to Safety

What to do about poisonous imports


Thousands of cats and dogs may have died from eating pet food made with wheat gluten and rice protein from Chinese companies that had deliberately contaminated their goods with melamine. Melamine is an ingredient in plastic that is used to make Melmac dinnerware, among other things. The melamine had evidently been added to boost the nitrogen content of the gluten and rice protein. Nitrogen content is often used as a marker for high protein content in food ingredients.

Hot on the heels of this contamination episode came reports that a poison, diethylene glycol, shipped from China as glycerin had been mixed into cold medicines in Panama. As many 100 people may have died from taking this adulterated drug. Diethlyene glycol is an ingredient in antifreeze and causes acute kidney failure when drunk. As an historical note, in 1937, diethylene glycol was mixed with the nasty-tasting antibiotic sulfanilamide in an elixir sold by the Massengill Company in the United States. Over 100 people died from taking it, and the scandal led directly to the passage of the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which increased FDA's authority to regulate drugs.

In the wake of the melamine contamination, CNN's own anti-globalist rottweiler Lou Dobbs, wondered, "Why in the world is the United States importing Chinese food?" And Dobbs was not alone. In a column entitled, "The Price Of Imported Food Is Too High," conservative Eagle Forum founder Phyllis Schafly darkly speculated, "Maybe China's poisoning of our pets will be one offense too many to tolerate."

Poisonous pet food and medicinal ingredients are a big problem. So what should be done about them? The most popular response from Congressional committees has been to advocate more money for a bigger FDA budget and more FDA food inspectors. Currently, the FDA inspects about 2 percent of food shipments from China. Another proposal is to create a centralized federal food safety agency. Even Daniel Griswold, director of the libertarian Cato Institute's Center for Trade Policy Studies acknowledges that "the U.S. retains full rights and sovereignty to inspect any imports on the grounds of public health and safety."

However, Griswold cautions against any hasty moves toward a general ban on food imports from China. "A knee-jerk effort to shut down imports from a specific place is the wrong way to go," says Griswold. Food safety is not just a foreign trade issue. He points out tainted spinach came from California and impure meats were shipped from Nebraska. "The place of origin of adulterated products is not as important as the fact they are entering food and drug supply chains," says Griswold.

More food safety inspectors might help, but not even the most ardent food safety activists are demanding that all food imports be inspected by government agents. Our best check against food adulteration and contamination is the self-interest of private companies backed up by government muscle when necessary. If Chinese companies earn a reputation as unreliable suppliers, American manufacturers will go elsewhere. "Chinese companies must clearly understand that their standards need to be higher if they want to export to the U.S. market," says Griswold. "Otherwise there will be a real price to pay for falling short of high standards."

As for now, food and drug manufacturers will work back down their supply chains to figure out how to improve their in-house safety procedures. In fact, this is already being done by pet food manufacturers who are planning to hire private laboratories to check imports to make sure that they are the right products and that they meet quality standards. Many large American companies have already established transnational quality assurance systems. After some initial reluctance to deal with the matter, the Chinese food safety authorities have detained officials from the two companies who shipped the adulterated gluten and rice protein. FDA inspectors in China found the facilities of the two companies shut down. Less happily, the supplier of the poisonous diethylene glycol is still being investigated.

The most effective way to address food and product safety issues is greater transparency. Cheaper information technology is already making it possible for companies (and inevitably governments) to mark and trace the provenance of all products and ingredients through their supply chains. All products will one day be accompanied with records tracing their origins from mines, forests, fields, oceans through factories and shippers to final consumers. Companies will immediately flag any break in the chain of provenance and demand that suppliers authenticate their goods. If that's not forthcoming, they will call the regulators in. My prediction is that such a comprehensive and largely private product tracing regime will evolve and be in place in the next ten years. In a decade or so, Americans will not have to give a second thought about whether their food and drugs come from Salinas or Shanghai.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.

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