How the pet food scare affects global health

By Laura H. Kahn | May 6, 2007

When a company decides to sell food on the international market (pet or otherwise), it better understand that everybody’s health is at stake.

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.

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