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Concerns are mounting over tainted products from China. Last month the media highlighted reports of toothpaste containing diethylene glycol, a chemical used in antifreeze. Earlier this year, pet food from China that contained melamine was blamed for the deaths of dogs and cats across North America. Regulatory authorities worldwide — including in Japan — have seized or rejected Chinese products for fear that they endanger consumers.

While China has been the focus of these scares, the problem is far more widespread. The global supply chain is not prepared for the constantly rising demand for food and many other products. Some producers are indifferent to the impact of their cutting corners in the pursuit of profits. In other cases, problems result from inexperience, poor regulatory programs and guidance, or a lack of resources to ensure safe production. There are no simple ways to stem the growing number of tainted products in the global market, but rising attention to the problem is a key step — as long as it leads to serious responses rather than scapegoating and finger-pointing.

Since the discovery of melamine-tainted pet food, various countries have rejected Chinese exports of fish, shrimp, prunes, juice with unsafe color additives, baby bibs, jewelry and even the popular Thomas toy trains due to traces of lead paint. Late last month three Japanese importers recalled millions of small-toothpaste sets made in China and sold to inns and hotels after they were found to contain diethylene glycol. For its part, China has impounded shipments of orange pulp and apricots from the United States because they contained “excessive amounts of bacteria and mold” as well as Evian water from France because of bacteria levels that exceeded national standards.

It is tempting to see the Chinese response as tit-for-tat retaliation. In fact, initial statements from Chinese officials — “guaranteeing” the safety of their products — sounded like knee-jerk defensiveness. More recently, however, Chinese authorities have taken steps to genuinely improve product safety, especially for food products. Inspectors have announced that they found 23,000 infractions involving products worth about $26 million and that they closed 180 food factories around the country in the first six months of 2007. An official conceded that the illegal practices “are not isolated cases.” China also reported that “19.1 percent” of products tested were found to be below standards, including canned fruit, fruit drinks and dried fish.

An obvious concern is the health of Chinese citizens. Dangerous products are not just bound for export. Chinese infants have died when fed fake milk powder; a batch of drugs tainted with diethylene glycol killed at least five people last year; an antibiotic killed at least 10 patients last year before it was taken off the market; and earlier this year, at least one person died after 200 people were served hospital food reportedly contaminated with rat poison.

Another issue is China’s international image. Flooding global markets with dangerous products undermines the hard work China has done to present itself as a responsible country. Thus a substantive response to these problems is required when they are revealed. Not surprisingly, Chinese officials insist that the safety of their products is a priority.

Finally, there is damage to China’s reputation as a reliable supplier. China exports more than $30 billion in food and drug products. The country produces about half the world’s vegetables and 16 percent of the world’s fruit. Just as important, many of these products come from small, rural producers, and the Chinese government worries about the impact of job losses if markets for these goods close.

Policing is tough. An estimated 1 million food factories are in China, most of them small. That requires a vast regulatory and inspection apparatus. China’s is big, but it is not coordinated and needs centralization. Corruption is another problem: A former head of the food and drug agency was sentenced to death for taking bribes, and an agriculture official is on trial for accepting bribes to approve products. The country’s infrastructure is also to blame: One study estimates that China needs to spend $100 billion over the next decade to safely store and transport food. Since there is no single world standard when it comes to regulating global agriculture trade, confusion compounds even well-intentioned producers — not just those in China.

China is taking action to improve the quality of its food exports. But it will succeed only if trading partners work with China to ensure the safety of those products. This requires more than a punitive approach. Other countries must recognize that only a cooperative effort will work. Information must be shared, best practices — for both production and surveillance — disseminated, and standards agreed.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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