Alarm Bells Ring Over China Food Imports

A farmer picks rape blossoms at a farm on the outskirts of Shanghai, China, seen in this March 10, 2006 file photo. AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko

The list of Chinese food exports rejected at American ports reads like a chef's nightmare: pesticide-laden pea pods, drug-laced catfish, filthy plums and crawfish contaminated with salmonella.

Yet, it took a much more obscure item, contaminated wheat gluten, to focus U.S. public attention on a very real and frightening fact: China's chronic food safety woes are now an international concern.

In recent weeks, scores of cats and dogs in America have died of kidney failure blamed on eating pet food containing gluten from China that was tainted with melamine, a chemical used in plastics, fertilizers and flame retardants. While humans aren't believed at risk, the incident has sharpened concerns over China's food exports and the limited ability of U.S. inspectors to catch problem shipments.

CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson reported Thursday that the tainted Chinese wheat gluten was human grade — meaning nothing but luck kept it out of the food stock destined for human dinner plates (read more).

While the public was focused on the danger to their pets, sources tell CBS News that the FDA had tracked at least one suspect batch of wheat gluten into the human food supply, quietly quarantined some products and notified the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention to watch for new patients admitted to hospitals with renal or kidney failure.

"This really shows the risks of food purity problems combining with international trade," said Michiel Keyzer, director of the Center for World Food Studies at Amsterdam's Vrije Universiteit.

Just as with manufactured goods, exports of meat, produce, and processed foods from China have soared in recent years, prompting outcries from foreign farm sectors that are feeling pinched by low Chinese prices.

Worried about losing access to foreign markets and stung by tainted food products scandals at home, China has in recent years tried to improve inspections, with limited success.

The problems the government faces are legion. Pesticides and chemical fertilizers are used in excess to boost yields while harmful antibiotics are widely administered to control disease in seafood and livestock. Rampant industrial pollution risks introducing heavy metals into the food chain.

Farmers have used cancer-causing industrial dye Sudan Red to boost the value of their eggs and fed an asthma medication to pigs to produce leaner meat. In a case that galvanized the public's and government's attention, shoddy infant formula with little or no nutritional value has been blamed for causing severe malnutrition in hundreds of babies and killing at least 12.

China's Health Ministry reported almost 34,000 food-related illnesses in 2005, with spoiled food accounting for the largest number, followed by poisonous plants or animals and use of agricultural chemicals.

With China increasingly intertwined in global trade, Chinese exporters are paying a price for unsafe practices. Excessive antibiotic or pesticide residues have caused bans in Europe and Japan on Chinese shrimp, honey and other products. Hong Kong blocked imports of turbot last year after inspectors found traces of malachite green, a possibly cancer-causing chemical used to treat fungal infections, in some fish.

One source of the problem is China's fractured farming sector, comprised of small landholdings which make regulation difficult, experts said.

Small farms ship to market with little documentation. Testing of the safety and purity of farm products such as milk is often haphazard, hampered by fuzzy lines of authority among regulators. Only about 6 percent of agricultural products were considered pollution-free in 2005, while safer, better quality food officially stamped as "green" accounts for just 1 percent of the total, according to figures compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
  • Christine Lagorio

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