Product safety issue a blessing in disguise?


HONG KONG — China’s preliminary agreement with the United States on measures to deal with food and drug safety worked out last week is an encouraging development that may well avert a confrontation that could poison the relationship, which is already beset by trade and other economic disputes.

The initial framework on a memorandum on food safety and another on drugs and medical devices was worked out at a five-day meeting in Beijing between experts from the two sides. The two countries will meet again in the middle of this month at the vice ministerial level to work out a detailed draft.

The U.S. is concerned with what it sees as insufficient infrastructure in China to assure the safety and quality of many Chinese exports. However, according to a statement issued by Mike Leavitt, U.S. secretary for health and human services, China has requested American help to “enhance the technical capacity of China’s regulatory agencies to help ensure Chinese exports to the U.S. meet U.S. safety standards.”

Despite the progress made in these talks, there are signs that there may still be obstacles ahead. For one thing, the Chinese team leader, Wei Chuanzhong, deputy chief of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, insisted that the problem was not one-sided. “Food safety is not only China’s concern but also a problem for all countries in the world,” he said. China last week seized orange pulp and dried apricots from the U.S. that it claimed contained excessive bacteria, mildew and sulfur dioxide.

Beijing wants the U.S. to lift restrictions on such products as fish, shrimp and eel that were imposed after repeated testing turned up contamination with drugs that have not been approved in the U.S. for farmed seafood. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration rejected 253 shipments of seafood from China in 2006.

The talks with the U.S. on food safety came a week after a top European Union official visited China and urged its leaders to be more transparent about actions that it takes against manufacturers of goods recalled in Europe.

While foreigners, quite naturally, focus on the safety of their food imports, within China people are even more worried. Chinese know that the best quality products, including food, are exported while those available on the domestic market tend to be of a poorer quality. So if exports are being rejected, Chinese consumers know that what is available to them is certainly worse.

The good thing is that China seems to be taking the crisis seriously. Last month, China executed the former head of its food and drug watchdog agency for taking bribes to approve untested drugs. Over the weekend, the Ministry of Commerce announced that it had established a blacklist of companies that have violated rules on the quality of exports. According to Vice Minister Gao Hucheng, “Already 429 companies have been punished.”

The food safety issue may well turn out to be a blessing in disguise. After all, the U.S. itself had problems with food and drug safety in the past, before the creation of the Food and Drug Administration. It is natural for China, a developing country, to encounter similar problems. Pressure from the U.S. is likely to focus Chinese minds and lead to the establishment of institutions to safeguard food and drug safety sooner rather than later.

Moreover, the spate of stories about such things as tainted pet food, toxic toothpaste and defective tires have already led to bizarre speculation that China may be exporting these products on purpose.

In June, at a White House press briefing, one reporter asked: “In just the past few weeks, there have been reports of China-made toys being recalled because of dangers of lead paint, Chinese-produced food with contaminants, and even China-produced honey laced with a drug. And now it’s being reported that Chinese-made tires are probably faulty and dangerous. What is being done to crack down on what appears to be a concerted effort to dump damaging or dangerous Chinese products on the American public?”

Fortunately, the spokesman, Tony Snow, rejected what he called the insinuation of “a conspiracy to dump these things on the American marketplace,” saying that when a problem arises, “you deal with it, including the recall of 450,000 tires.”

However, if such problems are not dealt with quickly, then those who believe in a China threat may well raise the dark possibility that Beijing was deliberately trying to undermine American society through such exports. It is therefore vital for the two governments to nip the problem in the bud.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.