It has been a long time coming, but now the mass media and even the “look-the-other-way” Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are focusing on a stream of Chinese imports that are contaminated or defective.
After years of warnings about farm-raised seafood imports from the Chinese mainland, the FDA’s Dr. David Acheson, in charge of food protection, said: “There’s been a continued pattern of violations with no signs of abatement.” So, finally, the FDA in late June blocked the sale of shrimp, frozen eel, catfish, basa and dace. The reasons included carcinogens and too many antibiotic residues.
Crowded into ponds, farmed Chinese fish are breeding grounds for disease, lice and contaminated water. So heavy doses of antibiotics and other food additives-many illegal in the U.S.-are applied. China is a major exporter of seafood to the U.S. We import 80% of all our seafood.
In recent weeks, disclosures of hundreds of thousands of defective tires (tread separation problems), lead-coated toys, contaminated toothpaste and pet food (which destroyed about 6000 pets) have raised the profile of a situation which is likely to get worse.
China produces products in a horrifically polluted environment-of the water, air and soil. Industrial chemicals, farm run-offs, mountains of toxic waste are alarming Beijing for both domestic consumption as well as foreign trade reasons. Despite loud proclamations of forthcoming action, the Chinese government has waited too long, allowed too much corruption and lax enforcement, and condoned a huge industry in exported counterfeit goods where anything goes.
Although country-of-origin legislation passed Congress in 2002, Mr. Bush-obsessed by the costly Iraq war and indentured to large corporate importers-did not push his Republicans in Congress to provide funds for enforcement. Instead, the president has signed into law delays in the labeling rule. Therefore, except for the required labeling of seafood from foreign countries (consumers take note), all other food in your supermarket is not required to have a label of the country that exported it. It is the majority Democrats’ job now to compel mandatory labeling of all imported foods.
China is the largest apple juice exporter in the world. Apple juice from China is pouring into the United States. Is there anything left that cannot be imported into what was once the greatest food exporter the world has ever seen?
It gets worse. The U.S. is on the verge of becoming a net food importer!
China has allies in the U.S.-the giant food processors that love to rely on profit-maximizing Chinese foodstuffs, additives and other ingredients. The large wholesalers and retail chains, like Wal-Mart, buffer the Chinese export machine from long overdue inspections and enforcement actions.
The inadequate budget of the FDA, and its fractured role with other federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, contributes to the failure of consumer protection. The FDA 2007 budget is only $1.5 billion, or one third of the price of just one aircraft carrier. That is not enough to defend the health and safety of the three hundred million Americans from hazardous drugs and foodstuffs.
Especially since the FDA has weak or non-existent enforcement powers to obtain information, keep records, demand recalls or impose effective fines.
Presently, the FDA is able to inspect about one percent of food shipments into the U.S. What can consumers do? Start yelling at your Senators and Representatives. This is one issue they are afraid to duck if the heat is on them. Second, buy from farmers and other producers near you, so you can skip the long chain of middlemen from China to your area who could have caught the problem but just pass the buck, so to speak.
Farmers markets from nearby farms are one way you can avoid contaminated imports.
Eighty percent of all children’s toys in America come from China. They come with too many hazards-burning, choking risks for small children, toxics in or on the toys. Some are recalled by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. You can be automatically notified of all CPSC recalls by registering with http://www.cpsc.gov/cpsclist.asp.
But, really, the fundamental responsibility here is with Beijing and Washington when careless or criminal companies fail their responsibilities. There needs to be a consumer safety treaty between the two countries where consumer needs are supreme.
Consumer groups and advocates in China need encouragement from their U.S. counterparts.
As far as those half a million or more replacement tires on the U.S. highways-already linked to two fatalities, the U.S. distributor in New Jersey says it doesn’t have enough money to recall them all. What about the Chinese exporter?
What is the U.S. Department of Transportation going to do about what will become more such defect-caused tragedies from a flood of auto parts and tires imported from China and other countries?
RALPH NADER is the author of The Seventeen Traditions