By Wenran Jiang
(Jun 25, 2007)
The spectacular rise of China as an economic powerhouse in the past three decades has brought countless consumer products to the world market, ranging from Christmas decorations to household electronics to many Father's Day presents that were opened last Sunday. Yet a flood of reports of late indicate that some of the Chinese exports are unsafe, contaminated and environmentally unfriendly, especially in the food and pharmaceutical sectors.
In March, pet food from China contaminated with melamine, a chemical used to make plastics, was recalled after the illness and death of large numbers of dogs and cats in North America. Melamine was also traced to feed additives from China for chicken, fish and hogs. Last month, Canada also found shipments of corn gluten from China contaminated with melamine and cyanuric acid. Then allegations came that some Chinese-made toys, makeup and pottery contain significant amounts of lead that may pose a health hazard.
The United States has banned Chinese toothpaste imports after a number of other countries detected diethylene glycol, a poisonous chemical used in antifreeze, in shipments. And in April, the United States turned back more than 230 Chinese food products at its borders, labelling most of them simply as "filthy."
There are good reasons for the rest of the world to be worried about such troublesome developments, especially health-conscious consumers in Western countries where food and drug regulatory regimes are facing the growing challenge of rapid globalization.
China's industrialization process has created unprecedented high mobility, with some 150 million people on the move from rural to urban areas for jobs and new economic opportunities. Reforms have weakened the central government's ability to effectively control or monitor an explosive market, now primarily driven by hundreds of thousands of private enterprises.
Cut-throat capitalism and pure greed for profits, 19th-century style, are raging in the world's fourth-largest economy. Longer working hours, lower wages, higher education costs, a collapsing health-care system, and destruction of the environment are just a few challenges among many. And some have ignored the rules and engaged in fake substitutes and cheating, just to make a buck.
Despite recent international complaints about the safety of China's exports, the Chinese people themselves, not foreigners, are the primary victims of many tragic food and drug scandals. Fake food and drugs are often found in the marketplace and are even sold to hospitals. Food and environment-related poisonings have caused many illnesses and deaths in recent years. In 2004, fake baby formula with little nutritious value caused severe health problems in many infants in central China, resulting in the loss of up to 60 young lives. And since 2005, the rate of malignant tumors, listed as the No. 1 killer in China, has shot up 18.6 per cent in the cities and 23.1 per cent in the countryside.
So it is pure sensationalism, if not Sino-phobia, for some U.S. pundits to pose such questions as "Is China trying to poison Americans and their pets?" In fact, Chinese consumers have become more vocal over the years about the country's public health and environment issues. Many Chinese media outlets, under threat of censorship, have produced large exposes on China's increasing food, work and environment safety weaknesses.
Ironically, it is the outcry of North America's pet owners that puts China under international pressure to pay more attention to the country's health risks. Chinese leaders now understand that China stands to lose hundreds of billions of trade dollars if it does not restore worldwide consumer confidence.
Chinese officials used to treat international complaints as isolated incidents or, in some cases, tried to avoid responsibility. But there are indications that China is taking the public health issues, domestic or international, very seriously.
First, it has acknowledged some of the problems reported in the press, and promised to investigate and resolve them.
Second, the Chinese leaders have launched a nationwide crackdown campaign. A Beijing court just sentenced the former head of the Chinese food and drug regulation administration to death for accepting bribes to certify manufacturers of fake drugs. And a range of investigations in response to reports of fake food and pharmaceutical products is going on.
Third, the Chinese government announced earlier this month a set of new regulations that are aimed at enhancing the nation's food and drug safety system. Based on measures first revealed in April, the State Council stressed that the new national monitoring system, to be put in place by 2010, will be able to trace products, deal with accidents, and handle food recalls.
For Canada and other countries, these are encouraging steps. But no one should take safety measures of other countries for granted. Canada should consider putting in extra resources and exercising greater caution in our overall food and drug inspection capabilities.
That should include not only more vigorous border checking and import control, but also lending a hand to China to share Canada's expertise in the food and drug safety area, so China can enhance the rule of law and speed up the process of establishing a robust monitoring system that will benefit both Chinese and people around the world.
Wenran Jiang is the director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta and a senior fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation. He has been working with Canada's PrioNet Research Network on food safety monitoring in Asia.