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Mon, May 14, 2007 - Page 10 News List

Health fears dull demand for China's food exports


Chinese cuisine may enjoy an international reputation but a series of health scares has dulled the appetite overseas for the country's booming food exports.

The discovery that two Chinese companies were responsible for poisonous additives that made their way into pet foods in the US is just the latest in a string of such cases.

From poisonous pet food to catfish pumped full of dangerous antibiotics to salmonella-laden prawns, China is fast becoming the world's biggest exporter of food-related health threats.

The situation is unlikely to get better soon, said Henk Bekedam, the WHO's representative in China, adding that Beijing simply was not set up to supervise its sprawling food and agriculture industry.

"China faces huge challenges for sure. I am optimistic that they are moving in the right direction but not expecting good news tomorrow," he said.

As in many other industries, Chinese farmers and food-related companies have filled the huge international demand for cheap products.

Exports of food and live animals have leapt from US$29 billion in 1980 to US$224 billion in 2005, according to Chinese statistics.

But China's trading partners are finding that you get what you pay for.

In the past few weeks, several US states banned imports of Chinese catfish due to traces of harmful antibiotics.

Similar recent bans caused by the presence of pesticides or other harmful chemicals have been imposed by Japan, the EU and Hong Kong on Chinese items ranging from shrimp to honey.

The US government last week advised its entire pharmaceutical industry to guard against the use of a potentially lethal sweetener traced to China and has scrambled to assure the public that contaminated wheat gluten -- the food additive found in the pet food -- so far poses no threat to humans in other products.

The problem stems from a combination of greed and ignorance as Chinese food suppliers join the country's headlong plunge into capitalism, cutting health and hygiene corners along the way and outpacing supervision systems.

As the overseas cases mounted, Beijing this week announced that it would tighten up inspections of the industry.

But China's countless farm holdings and food producers, many of whom use dangerous chemicals to boost yields, fatten up livestock or simply make foods look better, are impossible to fully police, said Kwan Hoi-shan (關海山), a biologist and chairman of Hong Kong's advisory Expert Committee on Food Safety.

"With the fast growth of the [Chinese] food industry, there has been more concern about growth in profits. There is a `quick money' mentality and a lack of coordination and knowledge of effective food safety practices," he said.

The overseas health scares so far pale in comparison to domestic cases.

In 2004, 13 babies died and hundreds suffered from malnutrition due to the widespread sales of baby formula that contained no nutrition.

China announced a crackdown, but new cases have proliferated and the growth in global trade of foodstuffs and the huge range of additives that go into food has made China's problem a global one.

Bekedam said that supervision is complicated by the existence of nine different ministries that control food safety. China also has several different food laws, compared to a single law that all 27 EU member countries abide by.

"China needs to figure out who is doing what and to focus attention on critical points in the production chain where dangerous substances may be added, not try to control everything," he said.

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