don't normally write about pet food, but the current hullabaloo in the
US over China's foot-dragging on the pet-food scandal should serve as a
warning — and not just to pets.
For those who missed the story,
US officials are investigating how wheat gluten used in pet food came
to be adulterated with melamine, a mildly toxic chemical which is
normally used to make plastic kitchen utensils and fertilisers.
Suspicion has fallen on the Chinese companies that exported the
wheat gluten, which they may have labelled as intended for non-food use
to avoid inspections.
The adulterated pet-food has killed or sickened an unknown number of
dogs and cats in the west and led to the recall of more than 100 brands
of pet food.
The incident has raised concerns about the safety of Chinese food
imports into the US. The Food and Drug Administration gave its
inspectors the power to detain without inspection all vegetable protein
imports from China if they suspected they were not what they seemed.
Tensions rose further when China initially denied any
responsibility, while US officials who wanted to investigate the source
of the contamination in China complained of the delay getting visas.
That's a problem EngagingChina can relate to — see this story earlier today.
China then softened its stance and sought to soothe the troubled
waters by promptly banning its food exporters from using melamine.
Meanwhile, articles in western media have exposed other incidents of
adulterated ingredients from China destined for food or, more
worryingly, pharmaceutical use.
Such cases give plenty of ammunition to scaremongers who argue
China's lax attitudes to safety and and quality control could have
potentially deadly consequences in products like pharmaceuticals or
aircraft spare parts. Would you still be keen to fly in an second-hand
Boeing knowing that the airline, to save money, had refurbished some of
the parts from China?
You probably would if the airline had got a reputable third-party,
preferably a western body, to certify that the quality and testing
procedures used for the Chinese-made spare parts were identical to
those used by Boeing for the original parts.
So, I suspect we will be hearing a lot more China-related
announcements from organisations working in testing, certification and
Of course, it is easy to condemn the Chinese businesses involved in
the pet food and pharmaceutical incidents for putting pets' and
people's lives at risk. It is also easy to argue that Chinese officials
prefers not to throw up too many road-blocks to trade by asking their
exporters difficult questions about the source and composition of the
ingredients in every sack.
But we should remember that US is hardly a shining example when it
comes to food safety. Anyone who has read Eric Schlosser's excellent Fast Food Nation will know about the mucky goings on behind US farm and factory gates.
It is thus ironic that US consumers seem to more alarmed about this
apparently isolated pet-food incident and its effect on their pooches
than they are about the countless examples of how, closer to home, lax
food safety standards — and the lack of effective enforcement by the
FDA — continue to put human health and lives at risk in the sake of
Ten years ago it was fast-food chain Jack In the Box that was in the dock for food poisoning. Last December, it was Taco Bell suffering from a “health-related incident” caused by contaminated ingredients which, needless to say, didn't come from China. Plus ça change.