05/06/2007 - 22:00

How the pet food scare affects global health

Laura H. Kahn

Laura H. Kahn

A general internist who began her career in health care as a registered nurse, Kahn works on the research staff of Princeton University's ...

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Anyone who has ever bought toys that were made in China knows that the toys typically break
after five minutes of play. It's reminiscent of the days when the label, "Made in Japan," conveyed
something similar. To their credit, the Japanese sought to improve the quality of their production
methods. After World War II, the Japanese Union of Scientists and Engineers invited U.S.
statistician and engineer W. Edwards Deming to teach them statistical control and concepts of
quality. The results made management history: Japan is now a production powerhouse with innovative
and high-quality products.

China is decades behind Japan in quality control, and if the current situation involving tainted
food additives is any indication, global consumers of Chinese products, particularly food products,
should be aware of what they're buying for many years to come.

In this crisis, cats and dogs served as sentinels when hundreds of them began dying from kidney
failure after eating food contaminated with wheat gluten that contained melamine, an industrial
chemical used to make plastics and fertilizer. Melamine is not approved for human or animal
consumption in the United States. Fortunately, the owners of the affected animals loved them, so
the deaths made headline news. In mid-March,
Menu Foods,
the company that made the cat and dog food, recalled 60 million cans and pouches.

According to an
FDA Consumer
Update
, the contaminated food product was imported from China by Wilbur-Ellis, a San
Francisco-based importer and distributor of agricultural products. Apparently, the company didn't
become aware of the contamination until April even though it began importing the product from China
in August 2006.

Unfortunately, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and FDA discovered that livestock such as
hogs and chickens (the animals that humans eat) also ate the contaminated food. Farms in at least
seven states (California, Indiana, Kansas, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Utah) have
been affected. There may be more as the investigation continues.

In addition, there's evidence that shipments of rice protein concentrates, likewise imported
from China, are contaminated with melamine. The company that shipped the suspected shipment of rice
protein is
Binzhou Futian
Biological Technology Co.
in China. Therefore, it appears that two protein concentrates (wheat
gluten and rice proteins) were contaminated with melamine.

The USDA and FDA aren't aware of any resulting human illness so far, and it's highly unlikely
that any humans will get sick from eating animals that consumed melamine. However, one could
speculate that it would be difficult to attribute any human illness to this episode since the
effects probably wouldn't become evident until years later.

According to a May 4
New York Times article, China arrested Mao Lijun, the head of the Xuzhou Anying Biologic
Technology Development Company--one of the companies involved in selling contaminated wheat gluten
to U.S. pet food suppliers. There is evidence that the melamine was deliberately mixed with the
product since Xuzhou bought large supplies of it in order to cheat buyers into thinking that they
were getting higher-grade feed. If this turns out to be deliberate contamination of an animal food
supply, it's an unconscionable crime. (We will assume that the companies didn't know that melamine
could kill.)

Mao's arrest was preceded by an angry reaction by the Chinese government to accusations that
Chinese food exports killed U.S. pets. At one point, Beijing even insisted that China hadn't
exported any wheat gluten this year. But the melamine-tainted food products were also shipped to
South Africa, which also announced a pet food recall after pets there died.

This sorry episode illustrates that a global food supply requires honesty and integrity. If
China or any other country wants to sell its products on the international market, it needs to make
sure that its products are top-of-the-line. Arresting a company manager is not an acceptable
long-term solution.

As Japan did decades ago, China should incorporate total quality management techniques in its
industries to assure its global customers that Chinese exports are of the highest quality. In
addition, Beijing should implement stringent oversight mechanisms on its products to maintain its
economic growth and consumer confidence in Chinese products. The old saying, "Buyer beware," is
applicable on both a local and global scale. And in a global food market, the phrase, "You are what
you eat," takes on a whole new meaning.

Addendum: On May 6, the
New York Times ran a front-page story about Chinese counterfeit drugs that have caused
untold numbers of deaths in Panama, Haiti, Bangladesh, Argentina, Nigeria, India, and China. The
story profiled cough syrup made with the poison diethylene glycol rather than glycerin, a more
expensive, but safer, ingredient in many medications.

Sadly, this is a case of history repeating itself. In 1937, the Tennessee pharmaceutical firm S.
E. Massengill Co. used diethylene glycol in its
Elixir Sulfanilamide, a
drug for streptococcal infections. Harold Cole Watkins, the company's chief chemist and pharmacist,
found that the antibiotic sulfanilamide readily dissolved in diethylene glycol. He didn't bother to
safety test it. The drug was distributed across 15 states, and more than 100 people died. The
public outrage led to the passage of the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which increased the
FDA's regulatory authority to ensure the safety and effectiveness of drugs.

On a global market, there is no FDA-equivalent oversight. The tragic case of China's deadly
medicines represents a failure by both the Chinese government and by the global community to
prevent such calamities.

The World Health Organization, Food and Agriculture Organization, and the World Trade
Organization should work together to implement an international World Food and Drug Agency, which
would ensure that food products and pharmaceuticals sold on the global market are safe.

China's reputation as an honest global trading partner is being seriously undermined by both the
agricultural/pet food scandal and by these new revelations of deadly medicines meant for human
consumption.

China should follow the U.S. action of 1938. If these episodes do not get China to regulate its
products to ensure safety and efficacy, then it would be prudent for the global community to stop
purchasing Chinese food and drug products. Low cost should not come at the expense of safety.