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The trouble on the world's farm
The melamine scandal is just the most notorious in a long string of ongoing problems that China faces
Should Canada be tougher on harmful produce from China?
May 20, 2007 04:30 AM
It's often said that China has become the world's factory. If you want to know how it's also becoming the world's farm, take a look inside the frenetic Ontario Food Terminal in Toronto on any given weekday morning.
Vic Carnevale points to the piled-up cases of garlic. On the right side they're from Mexico. On the left, from China. "Those are $55 a case," Carnevale, president of Veg-Pak Product Ltd., a vegetable wholesaler at the terminal, says of the Mexican garlic. Then he points to the left. "Those? $13."
"See those (Chinese) peas?" he continues, dodging hurried buyers in the aisle. "Ten dollars a case. In Canada you couldn't do it for that price if everybody worked for free!"
Every year Carnevale gets more and more fresh produce from China. In the span of just a few years, China has become one of the world's biggest exporters of food. It has become the leading exporter of fruits and vegetables, food additives and ingredients.
"They're coming on stronger and stronger," Carnevale says. "They're going to take over."
Even as this is happening, the safety of food from China is increasingly becoming an issue. The recent pet food scandal crystallized these fears after thousands of North American cats and dogs fell ill –the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has so far confirmed 16 deaths – from pet food containing Chinese wheat gluten tainted with the plastics-related chemical melamine.
But the melamine scandal is just the most notorious in a long string of ongoing problems that China faces. They include overuse of highly toxic pesticides and fertilizers to boost yields, improper use of animal drugs, fraud and corruption. And as Western countries are finding out – from fish pumped full of antibiotics to filthy seafood – China is exporting these problems abroad.
Tomorrow, the World Health Organization will release a major report on the safety of China's food system and make recommendations on how to fix it. The Star has learned that much of it will focus on China's convoluted regulatory framework, loose laws and lack of monitoring.
"In a big country like China there are major challenges," says Dr. Henk Bekedam, the WHO's representative in that country, in an interview from Beijing.
Bekedam told the Star his report, in conjunction with China's State Food and Drug Administration and the Asian Development Bank, will cite issues including the following:
* There are "plenty" of laws on food safety, but no overall law or unified standard.
* There are at least nine ministries involved in the issue, as well as other agencies, none of which has authority over the others. Co-ordination is lacking among the ministries.
* Suppliers are not properly certified in the food chain.
* The system isn't adequately monitored on a regular basis.
The last point speaks to the melamine scandal, Bekedam says. Since the product wasn't monitored during key points in its manufacture, it would be impossible to test for it in the end product "because you never thought" to test for it.
In spite of such problems, Canada's federal food inspection agency is not treating food from China any differently from that of any other country. Some wonder whether Canada should focus more heavily on individual countries exporting goods to our doorsteps, instead of just goods themselves.
"We need to improve our ability to track food back to its source," says Mansel Griffiths, director of the Canadian Research Institute for Food Safety at the University of Guelph. "This is all related to insuring a safer food supply."
Primarily because of low costs, but also longer growing seasons, Canada has joined many other Western nations in relying increasingly on China for its food supply.
Food imports from China have exploded over the past decade, rising nearly 300 per cent to more than $705 million last year, according to Statistics Canada. About half of that is fresh fruits and vegetables, of which China is now this country's fifth largest supplier. Another big category is fish and seafood.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency says it has no issue with China, and that it ensures the safety of Canada's food supply by assessing the risk of each type of food, not the country from which it originates.
"We focus on the risk of the product," says Paul Mayers, executive director of the agency's animal products directorate. "Whether it's eggs or protein concentrates, it doesn't matter what country it comes from. A risk is a risk is a risk. The perspective we see in terms of food from China is that these products continue to be safe for consumers and continue to meet Canadian requirements."
Mayers questions how one would compare one country to another in terms of food safety. "Internationally there is no benchmarking to suggest the food in one country is significantly riskier than food from another country," he says.
South of the border, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration readily compiles data that suggest otherwise.
Over the past year, the data show that China has consistently had the most shipment rejections of any country. Last month, China had 257 rejections. The next highest were Mexico and India, with 140 and 122, respectively.
The rejections – captured even though a mere 1 per cent of all shipments are inspected in the U.S. – were for everything from filthy salted bean cubes to unsafe colourants in jujubes, from dangerous additives, such as dulcin (a sweetener believed to be carcinogenic) in dried fruit and nitrofuran (an antibiotic banned in Canada) in breaded shrimp, to banned drugs in all sorts of fish.
Canada does not compile data in this manner, and the inspection agency says it cannot make direct comparisons. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency couldn't say how many officers do international inspections, which are carried out not at the border ports themselves but at inland transfer stations.
Officers do random inspections, but also closely scrutinize exporters who have been placed on a surveillance list based on past transgressions for quality, chemical residue or microbial hazards.
Canada imports all sorts of food from China. In some cases it comes from Chinese companies. In others, Canadian companies may grow the food in China and ship it back here.
Aside from garlic and peas, there's also ginger, tomatoes, water chestnuts, the edible root burdock, apples, oranges, exotic fruits like loquat or pomelo, fish, seafood, cereals, fruit juices, nuts, tea and candy. The only meat imported is canned pork and sausage casings.
Canada's inspection agency examines all meat, regardless of its origin. The agency could not say how much of the fruit and vegetables it looks at overall. But a report from fiscal year 2004-05, the latest available, says the agency took 1,369 samples from Chinese produce for chemical residue, and 23 were in violation. Also, 3 per cent were rejected for microbes. There was no information on rejection for quality problems such as filth.
With fish, the agency says it places more scrutiny on items from China and Southeast Asia because of past problems with antibiotic residue. So last year, 25 per cent of shipments were inspected, and 12 per cent of shipments from China were in violation. Also, 3 per cent had microbial contamination. Again, there's no information on rejections for quality.
Some experts think Canada has much to gain by doing more food investigation based on place of origin.
In fact, Guelph professor Griffiths finds the lack of such scrutiny "worrying, especially as there's a big push towards traceability in systems at the moment."
Some industry representatives say country-focused data could be helpful. "Something we have identified with the CFIA ... is the need quite frankly for more market intelligence to understand a bit more about food, how it flows through Canada, what is refused entry, etc.," says Heather Holland of the Canadian Produce Marketing Association.
"When you look at statistics, it helps you identify trends. If there are trends that identify higher risk, that's something we could look at mitigating, whether it's an education issue or information availability issue or where people have to look at their practices and examine them again."
Bekedam, the WHO official, says that "if the percentage is far higher in China, of course then ... countries have to make it part of their assessment and see from what they're going to do with it."
China's food safety record is dismal, experts say. Much of it stems from the farm system: still largely tiny-plot farmers – hundreds of millions of them – often using barred or fake pesticides and fertilizers. Much of their crop or livestock is sold to traders without documentation or records.
Bekedam says what China exports is better controlled than what's produced for the domestic market. Earlier this month, state media reported that cancer became China's top killer last year, and put the blame on pollution, heavy use of additives to make animals grow faster, and pesticides.
An infamous example of greed trumping safety occurred in 2004, when 12 babies died after being fed fake baby formula. And last November, authorities discovered that farmers had added a cancer-causing dye to the feed of their ducks, in order to gives the yolks of their eggs a red colour and thus fetch a higher price.
Griffiths says one way that countries could be more assured of the safety of food from developing countries, including China, is to audit the facilities doing the exporting. Canada, the U.S. and the European Union already do that for meat.
"We need to take a preventative approach rather than an inspection approach," says Griffiths. "We should adopt the strategy of the EU, in that they're trying to certify individual companies" in China. "Basically we should be working with the Chinese government and food processors in China to try to put practices in place that are equivalent to those in Canada."
Bekedam emphasizes, however, that food safety is an issue worldwide. And that China is making improvements.
For his part, Carnevale says that in his time as a produce wholesaler, he's seen Chinese products improve in quality. Garlic was "lousy. But gradually they worked on it to the point where they were better than everybody else."
Earlier this month, after taking responsibility for the melamine scandal, China said it will step up inspections. In the past, it has also banned some of the most toxic pesticides.
In fact, Bekedam's report was made at the behest of the Chinese.
"They do accept they need some further advice on how to improve food safety," he says.
China has to do this, for a lot of money is at stake. Last Friday, The Los Angeles Times reported that two major food manufacturers in the U.S., Mission Foods Corp. and Tyson Foods Inc., ordered their suppliers to stop using ingredients from China.
Some Canadian growers and importers are taking it upon themselves to inspect the Chinese side of their businesses.
Tom Byttynen, president of Thomas Fresh Inc. of Calgary, says his staff visits the farm they've contracted in China, which produces 20 different vegetables for the Canadian market, to ensure quality standards are met.
"I have concerns from what is not entirely a first-world nation," Byttynen says, adding that the farm is "amazing" and audited by independent third parties from the U.S. or Japan. "We want to know that the product is grown properly and (we're not just interested in) food safety, but also that people are treated morally and ethically."
Right-Wingnut wrote:It's time to rise up in total disgust and demand that the governments of the free world ban totally the import of any foodstuffs from China PERIOD.
They do not deserve our respect in any capacity.
littleharbour wrote:Made in China may be ok for toasters, but having experienced first hand the selective hygiene of the Chinese food industry [the perils of which I avoided through diligence and some local advice], there is no way I'd knowingly eat anything coming from that country unless I knew exactly how it had been processed. Frankly, I'm shocked that there hasn't been a total ban on the importation of Chinese food products until a testing regime can be implemented to ensure food safety. If a Canadian company had been caught sending tainted food into China, you can be sure that all such imports would be halted until further notice.
littleharbour wrote:Before bleakfast.
Not funny RW. Some of the finest people in this country are of Chinese origin. The problem is not the Chinese people. The problem is the communist Chinese government.
Theresa wrote:I had no idea we were importing food of any sort from China until reading about the tainted dog food.
I will be reading labels but even then the food may have ingredients purchased from China. The poison in the dog food was from one ingredient.
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