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As Imports Increase, a Tense Dependence on China

Until the late 1990s, most of the products listed here were made in the United States and Europe. As of 2007, Chinese companies have dominated the market, offering the products to foreign manufacturers at a considerably cheaper cost.
Lindsay Mangum / NPR
Until the late 1990s, most of the products listed here were made in the United States and Europe. As of 2007, Chinese companies have dominated the market, offering the products to foreign manufacturers at a considerably cheaper cost.
Imports from China of concentrated apple juice and garlic alone topped $200 million in 2006.
Lindsay Mangum / NPR
Imports from China of concentrated apple juice and garlic alone topped $200 million in 2006.

Toothpaste from China is the latest official worry. This week, the Food and Drug Administration began testing it at U.S. ports of entry after contaminated Chinese toothpaste began showing up in other countries. It contained a chemical used in antifreeze — the same chemical that killed people in Panama last year when it turned up in cough syrup, mislabeled by Chinese manufacturers as a harmless sweetener. An FDA spokesman says no test results are available yet on the toothpaste at U.S. ports.

The FDA is still watching vegetable proteins from China for signs of melamine contamination, a chemical that turned up in pet food and animal feed earlier this spring.

U.S. officials are asking the Chinese to do more to safeguard the food and drugs they export to America. And Thursday, Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt warned that any nation that loses U.S. trust in its exports will suffer economically.

"Assuring the safety of food in large nations is a demanding proposition, whether it's China or the United States," Leavitt said. "And neither of our countries has perfected this process."

Many experts say the problems are a consequence of globalization, and especially of America's growing dependence on China for food ingredients.

The FDA lists on its Web site food imports its inspectors have refused at U.S. ports. Last month, FDA inspectors blocked 257 food shipments from China, according to the list.

"That's by far the most of all the countries of the world," says William Hubbard.

He knows the FDA inside out; Hubbard used to be its deputy commissioner and now works with the Coalition for a Stronger FDA.

Even when the volume of Chinese imports is taken into account, that's a far higher reject rate than other trading partners.

In the past year, the FDA rejected a higher proportion of food shipments from China than from any other country.

The rejected shipments make an unappetizing list. Inspectors commonly block Chinese food imports because they're "filthy." That's the official term.

"They might smell decomposition. They might see gross contamination of the food. 'Filthy' is a broad term for a product that is not fit for human consumption," Hubbard says.

Another rejection code is "vet-drug-res." That means the food product, usually things like fish, seafood and eels, contains residues of veterinary drugs, such as antibiotics and antifungals.

"These fish are often raised in polluted water, unfortunately. So they're given these drugs to treat them," Hubbard says.

Drug residues in food are illegal. They promote antibiotic resistance, which makes drugs useless when they're needed. One drug that routinely shows up in Chinese food imports is dangerous. It's a veterinary antibiotic that causes cancer in animals.

When Hubbard was at the FDA, he heard all kinds of stories about foreign food processors, like the one a staffer told him after visiting a Chinese factory that makes herbal tea.

"To speed up the drying process, they would lay the tea leaves out on a huge warehouse floor and drive trucks over them so that the exhaust would more rapidly dry the leaves out," Hubbard says. "And the problem there is that the Chinese use leaded gasoline, so they were essentially spewing the lead over all these leaves."

That lead-contaminated herbal tea would only be caught by FDA inspectors at the border if they knew to look for it, Hubbard says.

"The system is so understaffed now that what is being caught and stopped is only a fraction of the food that's actually slipping through the net," he says.

The FDA normally inspects about 1 percent of all food and food ingredients at U.S. borders. It does tests on about half of 1 percent.

And official vigilance has been going down — for two reasons.

First, food imports have increased dramatically, from $45 billion in 2003 to $64 billion three years later.

Second, the "food" part of the FDA has been getting smaller.

Shaun Kennedy of the National Center for Food Protection and Defense says no country is increasing its food exports faster than China.

"China has increased overall its food imports to the United States by over 20 percent in the last year alone," Kennedy says. "Going back three years, we have doubled our agricultural inputs from China."

China has become the leading supplier of many food ingredients, such as apple juice, a primary sweetener in many foods; garlic and garlic powder, a major flavor agent; sausage casings and cocoa butter.

China now supplies 80 percent of the world's ascorbic acid — vitamin C. It's used as a preservative and nutritional enriching agent in thousands of foods. One-third of the world's vitamin A now comes from China, along with much of the supply of vitamin B-12 and many health-food supplements, such as the amino acid lysine.

That is no accident. Chinese manufacturers have tried to corner the market in many food ingredients by under-pricing other suppliers.

Leo Hepner, a food-ingredient consultant based in London, says vitamin C is a good example.

"The price in 1995 was $15 per kilogram," Hepner says. "Today, the price from China is $3.50."

No one can compete with that. So most Western producers of vitamin C have shut down.

That's globalization. But there's a hidden price for cheap goods. Earlier this year, lead-contaminated multivitamins showed up on the shelves of U.S. retailers. And this spring, vitamin A from China contaminated with dangerous bacteria nearly ended up in European baby food.

It's bound to happen more often. Hubbard says the agency is overwhelmed by the rising tide of imports.

"When I came to the FDA in the 1970s, the food program was almost half of the FDA's budget. Today, it's only a quarter," Hubbard says.

Experts say the FDA has about 650 food inspectors to cover 60,000 domestic food producers and 418 ports of entry.

The agency plans to close nearly half of its 13 food-testing labs.

All that means food safety depends on the vigilance of food companies operating in a fast-changing world. Many companies may not know much about their suppliers.

Earlier this month, the FDA wrote a letter to food manufacturers reminding them of their legal responsibility to make sure all the ingredients they use are safe. Don't depend on FDA testing, the letter says.

Jean Halloran agrees. She's director of food safety for Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports. She has some advice for food companies.

"I think you have a responsibility to get on a plane and go over there, and see the plant where that's being manufactured, so that you can see for yourself whether there's a polluted water supply coming into the facility, whether lead-bearing paint chips might be falling into the vats of whatever you're purchasing," she says.

But consumers who want to find out where food is coming from or what American companies are doing to safeguard it might not have much luck.

Four years ago, Congress passed a law requiring food to be labeled for its country-of-origin. But that doesn't extend to individual food ingredients.

And when NPR asked major food companies where they get their ingredients and how they test them, companies either didn't respond or said those matters are proprietary secrets.

Michael Doyle heads the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia and consults for Con-Agra, a leading food producer. He says there's a lot of variation in companies' trustworthiness.

"Some of the major brand companies I know are very proactive in addressing food safety," he says. "Some others are not."

Often, he says, consumers have to take a company's word that its food is safe.

"And unfortunately, that's what the FDA has to do, too," Doyle says.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

United States & World Morning Edition
Since he joined NPR in 2000, Knox has covered a broad range of issues and events in public health, medicine, and science. His reports can be heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Talk of the Nation, and newscasts.