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Published: Sunday, 7/29/2007

China imports cause many to be freighted with worry

BY JON CHAVEZ
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
As U.S. imports from China increase, growing numbers of products, including food, pharmaceuticals, and toys, have been found to be contaminated. As U.S. imports from China increase, growing numbers of products, including food, pharmaceuticals, and toys, have been found to be contaminated.
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CRAIG VALENTINE needed a manufacturer to produce his newest item: a small, fire-proof safe.

Had the president of Clarke Power Products Inc., of Perrysburg, used an American manufacturer, the instructions to build his product would have been on one or two pages.

But instead he chose a factory in China and prepared 13 pages of instructions to ensure the item would be built correctly.

Chinese-made ingredients or products have been tainted lately because some failed to meet U.S. standards for health and safety.

Poisoned pet food and toothpaste, toxic toys, and defective tires have found their way into the United States as part of the $288 billion worth of annual imports from China.

Chinese culture and business practices guarantee that basic consumer product safety will be an issue for years, experts say, which means Americans should be wary, particularly of products that are ingested, such as food, pharmaceuticals, and health care items.

Debbie Linn, a Toledo resident, said, I now definitely look at other products. I check labels to see where food products are made. or I ask.

When the tainted-pet-food scare began in December, she researched pet foods to keep her three cats safe.

For several years, Daniel Chow, a law professor at Ohio State University, has examined labels on food and other ingested items to be sure they weren t made in China.

It s a precaution based on the years he lived and worked in China for Procter & Gamble, observing Chinese safety standards first-hand.

There are extreme quality-control problems because the people who engage in manufacturing there do engage in shortcuts, he said.

They don t intend to kill people, but there s very lax control of manufacturing and it leads to negligence and carelessness.

The problems won t be cured soon, he said.

But reading labels won t help a lot.

A 2002 law that would require meat and other products to specify country of origin will not go into effect until 2008 because Congress agreed with grocery stores and meat-packing firms that rapid compliance was too burdensome and would lead to higher prices.

Manufacturers of food products are not required to disclose where their ingredients or additives came from.

More than 80 percent of ascorbic acid, used to preserve foods, comes from China, as does about 40 percent of xanthan gum, used as a thickening agent in dairy foods and salad dressings.

Although the Chinese government executed a top official, closed 180 food plants, and imposed tough safety rules this year, Mr. Chow said the response doesn t really address the fundamental problem: quality control at the local level.

Mr. Valentine, of Clarke Power, who makes five trips a year to China, said Chinese manufacturers are eager to please.

But you cannot assume that what we want and what we expect is what they what they will provide unless you specifically tell them, he added.

The pet-food scandal this year was a high-profile problem because wheat gluten containing the toxic chemical melamine was sold to pet food producers in the United States, and dogs and cats that ate the food died. It is still unclear how the melamine got into the food.

Contaminated food

Also, some Chinese-made toothpaste was found to contain diethylene glycol, a deadly chemical used in antifreeze. It was shipped to Panama, where 51 people died, and showed up later in U.S. discount stores. The manufacturer had no formal knowledge of chemistry.

Other incidents, according to U.S. inspectors, include juices and fruits rejected as filthy ; prunes tinted with chemical dyes not approved for human consumption; frozen breaded shrimp preserved with nitrofuran, an antibacterial that can cause cancer; swordfish rejected as poisonous ; toys coated with lead-based paint; and tires made so that the tread was likely to separate.

China has been embarrassed, and officials there promised to eliminate smaller factories by 2010 to enhance national control over product quality. But it s easier said than done, Mr. Chow said.

Barriers to safety

Peter Morici, a business professor at the University of Maryland, said barriers hamper Chinese efforts to improve product safety.

China does not have a regimen for product and food safety. It has good standards, they just don t enforce them, he said.

Also, it is a Communist country trying to embrace capitalism, and for some manufacturers it s all about making a profit with little regard for human life.

And when safety issues do arise, there is no legal system to hold someone accountable, Mr. Morici said.

Control of manufacturing is left to the provinces, which are primarily interested in economic development, he said.

Pharmaceuticals, food, and toys are certain to produce more problems for U.S. consumers, Mr. Morici said. It s the direct consequence of a regulatory system in China and a culture of absolute disregard for public safety, he added.

But Mr. Valentine, whose nephew bought a tube of tainted counterfeit Colgate toothpaste, said the problems stem from maliciousness.

Americans were upset their pets were dying from tainted wheat gluten, but many people in China didn t understand the fuss, he said. Why should they? They eat dog for lunch, he said.

Mr. Chow said the U.S. government will need to do more. Federal inspectors generally won t open cargo containers unless they have reason to suspect something is wrong, and inspections are carried out by at least five federal agencies with little coordination among them.

The Food and Drug Administration is able to inspect only about 1 percent of the imported foods it regulates, down from 8 percent in 1992 when imports were less common.

By contrast, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for meat and poultry, inspected nearly 16 percent of imported foods in 2006. But China isn t certified to sell meat in the United States.

Damaged reputation

Mr. Chow said American shoppers need to be more careful, because counterfeit and substandard products are most likely to show up at discount stores and liquidators.

Bill Bishop, a grocery industry consultant in Chicago, said China s overall reputation as a supplier of ingredients and products hasn t been harmed badly.

Not everyone is convinced that everything coming from China is harmful, he said. So far, said the president of Willard Bishop Consulting, China hasn t been viewed as Japan was in the 1960s when people thought most goods coming from that country were poor quality.

Kristen Keith, of Toledo, was concerned about the pet food and toothpaste problems but said she hasn t increased her vigilance in shopping. You can drive yourself crazy. There s always risk in life, she said.

The small numbers of people becoming very sick or dying kept the consumer outcry more muted, said Mr. Valentine.

The deaths of two men in a rollover accident in Pennsylvania were linked to failure of a set of tires made by China s Hangzhou Zhongee Rubber Co. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a recall this summer for 450,000 tires made by the company and sold under the names of Westlake, Telluride, Compass, and YKS.

The quality problems are occurring as trade increases with China. Last year, the United States imported $5 worth of China-made goods for every dollar s worth it exported to China.

From the political point of view, people are arguing for even more protection on Chinese production, said Songhua Lin, a professor of international trade at Denison University, Granville, Ohio. But if restrictions are tightened, prices will surely go up.

Contact Jon Chavez at:jchavez@theblade.comor 419-724-6128.



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