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What's for Dinner? Lead and Antifreeze -- Yum!

01/19/2009 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

Tainted Food from Afar: Another Reason to Eat Local

Over the past couple of months, melamine has been heavy in the headlines. In case you haven't read the news, dairy products manufactured in China were intentionally contaminated with the chemical in order to boost the apparent level of protein. Sadly, babies were the canaries in the coalmine.

Chinese officials recently issued the latest figures for the number of children affected by tainted dairy products, saying that as many as six babies might have died and nearly 300,000 were sickened after consuming contaminated milk powder. In the weeks following the public health debacle, melamine tainted food products were found in countries all over the world. Massive recalls ensued and the Chinese dairy industry took a big hit. Unfortunately, this story is much bigger than milk.

China is the biggest supplier of food imports to the US and their export market for food ingredients has risen sharply in recent years. Food and ingredient exports from China to the United States increased from 82,000 shipments in 2002 to nearly 300,000 in 2007. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is in charge of regulating roughly 80% of these shipments (the USDA controls the rest). What are they finding beyond melamine? Here's an extremely abbreviated list:

Tea contaminated with lead because the manufacturers use a rather unconventional technique to dry the leaves: they drive trucks over them. The exhaust helps dry the leaves, but since they still use leaded gasoline in China, it contaminates the tea with lead.

Heparin, an injectable blood anticoagulant, was recalled by the FDA recently due to contamination of the raw heparin stock imported from China. The FDA released a statement claiming contaminated heparin killed at least 81 people in the U.S.

• Chinese toothpaste contaminated with a poisonous chemical used in antifreeze. Diethylene glycol was used as a cheap substitute for the safe additive glycerin, used to thicken toothpaste.

• FDA has repeatedly found that farm-raised seafood imported from China are contaminated with carcinogenic antimicrobial agents that are not approved for use in the United States and some that are also prohibited by Chinese authorities. The sheer amount of repeat cases of the contamination prompted Chinese authorities to inspect local factories. Chinese investigators said they found food factories using such raw materials as mineral oils, paraffin wax, formaldehyde and the carcinogenic malachite green, in the production of flour, candy, pickles, biscuits, bean curd and seafood.

And these cases are just a handful that actually made the news. I perused the FDA's Import Database and discovered a wide range of shipments from China that were refused, including:

• "filthy" cod,
• tilapia contaminated with unapproved drugs,
• frozen breaded shrimp contaminated with nitrofuran,
• dehydrated celery contaminated with unapproved pesticides,
• something called "itch stop wipes" that contained unapproved drugs,
• egg dye tablets and tattoos that were colored using toxic dyes,
• unsanitary toothpaste that had unsafe additives,
• poisoned grape seed extract powder that's poisonous, and
• a wide variety of poorly labeled or misbranded products.

All in all, from January 2008 until the end of November, the FDA refused 1,540 shipments from China. Sounds impressive, but as the headlines reveal, many products are slipping past regulators. And, it's no wonder -- there were roughly 13 million food imports last year and only 300 inspectors. That sort of understaffing results in only about 1% of shipments being examined, according to William Hubbard, former Senior Associate Commissioner for Policy, Planning and Legislation at the FDA, who now works with the nonprofit, nonpartisan Coalition for a Stronger FDA. In fact, even though food imports have skyrocketed over the past few decades, FDA funding for food inspection has shrunk to one-quarter what it was in the 1970's.

So, if the FDA is only inspecting about 1% of shipments, and from that 1% they have refused 1,540, if they actually examined everything coming from China, would 154,000 shipments be denied? Does that mean that 152,460 tainted, filthy, unsanitary shipments have slipped through the cracks?

We can tip our hats a teeny-tiny bit to the latest FDA attempt to crack down on the filthy foods China has been exporting. They've actually created new restrictions on imports from China, holding dairy shipments at the border until they are tested by an independent lab (which is being hotly contested by the Chinese government). Also, in an unprecedented effort to improve product safety, the FDA opened three offices in China to start overseeing exports before they reach our shores.

Unfortunately, we import food from many other places, and while China tops the list for refusals, they aren't the only offenders. From January through November, imports from India were refused 1,404 times. And, third place in import refusals goes to our neighbors to the north, Canada (although they export about three times as much to the US, so overall, their shipments are safer).

Global food crises and global financial crises will only push manufacturers even further in their quest to find the cheapest ways to make food. Whether that means driving fewer times over the tea leaves or using antifreeze in even more innovative ways, well, maybe the FDA will catch it but maybe they won't. Protect yourself. Eat local.

This post originally appeared on Healthy Child Healthy World's blog.