Will China's Practices Hurt Food Sales?

petersen - china factory
By some reports, melamine was — until now — a commonly used additive for wheat gluten exported from factories like one in Shandong Province to the United States for pet food.

Melamine is a cheap way to fake high protein levels in wheat gluten.

The Chinese government — moving to protect its multibillion-dollar exports of fruits and vegetables — has now banned melamine and shuttered plants that may have used it.

China insists every container with agricultural products is inspected. But the reality, experts tell CBS News, is that serious spot checks are rare. So buyers and even the government come to perhaps the most sophisticated private lab in the country for checking foods, especially for pesticides, the No. 1 problem, CBS News correspondent Barry Petersen reports.

At the lab, they believe the foreign companies buying the goods have more leverage than the government.

"If I'm a supplier in China, I'm going to react much more if my customer tells me I need to improve what I'm doing and they want to make sure I'm doing a safe job," said John Chapple, general manager of the Sino Analytica lab.

Most Chinese farms are tiny — a third of an acre — and they're selling to a world in which every country has different regulations, such as how much and what kind of pesticide can be used.

But it's not just what Chinese farmers are putting on their crops, it's also what the country's industry is spewing into the air and dumping into the water that's threatening China's food supply. Ten percent of China's arable land is now badly polluted. Cities let chemicals run in the streets and clog up the rivers.

"What's in these rivers is largely industrial," said China expert Orville Schell, "and that's what they use to irrigate crops."

China wants to be food exporter to the world. It's an ambition that may falter if it can't convince the world its products are as safe as they are cheap.