Read more of this story at Slashdot.
Just as Canadian and U.S. health officials were scrambling to find out which brands of Chinese-made toothpaste had entered their countries, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency announced last Friday that it has intercepted a shipment of corn gluten from China contaminated with melamine and cyanuric acid.
Melamine, a toxic chemical used to make fertilizers, is the chemical that in March was found to have contaminated over 100 brands of pet food in Canada and the U.S. The source of the contamination was found to be tainted wheat flour imported from China.
Also last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned that packages of fish imported from China labeled monkfish could actually be puffer fish which contain the lethal toxin Tetrodotoxin.
Earlier in the week, health officials in the Dominican Republic recalled two Chinese brands of toothpaste which contain diethylene glycol, a lethal chemical used in engine coolant. The contaminated toothpaste has also been sold in Panama and Australia.
The same chemical was found in a Chinese-made cough syrup in Panama last year, and resulted in the death of at least 50 people. A spokesperson from Health Canada confirmed that the two Chinese toothpaste brands have not been approved for sale in Canada, and have not been found on the Canadian market so far.
Monthly reports by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration show that China by far tops the list of countries with the most food shipment rejections. Last April, 257 import shipments from China were denied entry to the U.S. for reasons ranging from mislabeling to using poisonous additives.
A few years ago, the European Union banned all imports of animal products from China after finding high levels of dangerous chemicals in some of the products. Although the blanket ban was later removed, many products still remain on the banned list.
Last year, South Korean officials banned Chinese imports of Kimchi, a spicy cabbage dish, after parasites normally found in human excrement were discovered in tested samples.
In recent years, both Canada and the U.S. have been accepting cheap and very often lower-quality imports from China, which might explain why problems with Chinese food imports have suddenly surfaced; the more potentially tainted products that are imported, the higher the chance they will make it onto the market.
Recently, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) boosted its efforts in inspecting shipments of wheat, rice, soy, corn gluten, and protein concentrates of Chinese origin entering Canada, holding all such shipments for inspection before they can enter the Canadian market.
"The focus is on what presents the risk, which is the product, not the country. In that context, when the evidence points to a particular country being a source of a particular problem, then we do more specifically [focus] on products from that country," says Paul Mayers, executive director of the Animal Products Directorate with the CFIA.
Mayers says the CFIA has not set a specific time frame to terminate the border lookout for vegetable and protein concentrates from China, but it will continue until there is "sufficient assurance" that contaminated products are not entering Canada.
Even so, the possibility of tainted food slipping through the cracks is high, says Dr. Keith Warriner, a food science professor and food safety researcher at the University of Guelph.
"If you think how much product is imported to Canada, to actually test it all is merely impossible. In addition to that, sometimes these contaminants are hidden in fairly low concentrations, so you don't know what to look for."
Within China, quality control and food safety regulations tend to be lax or non-existent, and consumers have to be constantly vigilant for so-called "fake products," which can include everything from fake soy sauce and fake herbs to wine with high levels of industrial ethanol and vegetables overdosed with fertilizer.
"If you talk to anybody from China, they'll tell you about how there's absolutely no food safety standards there in a lot of the locally produced foods," says Dr. Warriner.
Julie, a Chinese-Canadian who immigrated to Canada from Beijing in 2000 and wishes to keep her surname private, says it is very common in China to read in the local papers about cases of tainted food being sold, resulting in cases of poisoning.
In a famous case in 2004, hundreds of babies in an eastern Chinese province became ill and 13 died after incurring severe malnutrition from fake milk powder.
In a speech in Paris in 2006, Zhou Qing, a Chinese scholar and freelance writer, provided some disturbing statistics from a food and safety investigation he performed. In 2001, around 6,000 students in Ji Lin city were poisoned by fake soymilk, and in 2002, another 3,000 students in Hai Cheng city, Liao Ning province, were poisoned.
Qing also mentioned a 2004 Chinese survey indicating that 90 per cent of the participants were worried about food safety, and 82 per cent of those had encountered food safety problems. He said Chinese scholars have ascertained that there are two to four million food poisoning cases occurring in China each year.
Back in 2000, an official from China's State Bureau of Quality and Technical Supervision announced a crackdown on the production of fake and shoddy goods. The areas targeted were construction materials, agricultural production materials, gas stoves, household appliances and food.
Dozens of people have died in China as a result of counterfeit drugs. Last year, 11 deaths were caused by the drug Xinfu, a poor quality antibiotic that hadn't been properly sterilized.
Many counterfeit drugs that originate in China and India make their way onto overseas markets. In India, there's a law against selling counterfeit drugs within the country, but not against exporting them.
The former head of China's State Food and Drug Administration, Zheng Xiaoyu, was recently convicted of accepting large bribes to approve hundreds of untested drugs. In one case, a company paid bribes to Zheng in return for approving 277 drugs, mostly antibiotics.
In February, the BBC reported that corruption at the State Food and Drug Administration runs so deep that Beijing is considering closing it down entirely.Beijing announced on Tuesday that a new recall process targeting unapproved food products would be introduced by the end of the year.
Dr. Warriner says that since China's relatively recent emergence onto the global market, there has been no real system of food safety inspection or protocol to enhance food safety, and standards in China remain far from what we expect in North America.
"With all the outbreaks of pet food scandals and now the toothpaste…can we afford the risk of injury to the Canadian population, and obviously to our pets as well? I would advise a very cautionary tale…this is not just a flash in the pan, it's an endemic problem, a serious problem," says Warriner.
Additional reporting by Dane Crocker, Rory Xu, and Heidi B. Malhotra.