Food contamination: do we risk a trade war with China?

[This is a guest entry by Jim Gwyn, a professional chemist and environmental regulator in North Carolina.]

The expert in your earlier post talking about sulfur in proteins was partially right. There usually is sulfur in protein, but nitrogen is always there. (Two of the 20 common amino acids contain sulfur but all of them contain nitrogen.) Pretty much all the nitrogen in food is in the protein. It is cheap and fast to test for nitrogen. As a result, testing for nitrogen is a quick and dirty way to get a rough idea of the protein level in food.The Chinese have been gaming the system. According to what I’ve seen, they used to use urea (46.6 % nitrogen) until people caught on and started testing for it. Melamine is not detected by the test for urea and at 66.6% nitrogen, it gives an even higher false positive result for protein.

Right now, there are several things going here.

First, food adulteration is rampant in China. (A fact made clear by yesterday’s NY Times article). For example, there have been cases of fake infant formula that had no food value whatsoever. The producers of adulterated food make one hell of a profit and due to extreme corruption and very lax laws, usually there are no repercussions. Also, many things that are well known to be harmful are said to be harmless there. Whether they actually believe that or are only interested in profit, I can’t say.

Second, the Chinese government don’t seem inclined to stop their people from screwing us for money. It’s not like they’ve ever suffered any real consequences for it. Take a look at who the billionaires are in China. They’re mostly the families of the top government leaders.

Third, as a general rule, American consumers buy by price, then ad impressions, etc. It is a race for the bottom with no end in sight. The low bid rules, period. If we can get our tomatoes from Guatemala cheaper than California then by god we will. Unfortunately, this provides every incentive for suppliers and manufacturers to cut every possible corner to drive price down – a process that’s often at odds with other important goals like safety and quality.

Fourth, there is the issue of trade treaties. We’ve had pesticide residue laws thrown out because it was ruled in international courts that they illegally stopped imports. This is one of those cases where we really need to reassess just how much we need to trade with China. As far as I know, they make nothing we can’t get from other nations. Let’s start by removing Most Favored Nation (MFN) status and flat out banning imports of foodstuffs from China. This might start a trade war, but is it better to let them poison us and our loved ones?

Personally, I try to buy food as locally as possible or even grow it myself. I explicitly try to never buy anything made in China if I can find an alternative.

As an interim measure, I’m going to do something I almost never do and say “let slip the dogs of litigation.” In many venues, all a lawyer has to do is to show noncompliance with some rule and he can sue for damages because the state didn’t take care of it. Let’s make imported goods subject to this and let fly.

I encourage your readers to have a look at the latest on the subject from ProMED. This feed is put out by the International Society for Infectious Diseases and is pretty authoritative. Some highlights:

  • “Small doses:” dose matters, and “small” isn’t defined. What may be a small amount to a market-size swine is above the lethal dose for a beagle.
  • According to the FDA regulations melamine is considered an adulteration. Adulterated foods are not acceptable for marketing or consumption. The fact that the Chinese company did not disclose the melamine in the gluten product makes it an adulterated product and is subject to regulatory restrictions. (And as the NYT article notes, melamine is illegal in American food in any form.)
  • Melamine – and possibly its metabolites – are known to pass into the urine, raising possibilities that it may pass into edible tissues in market bound animals, such as swine, chicken and cattle. Consequently, low levels of melamine in tissues may show up later in people as being a trigger for a number of diseases, including cancer.

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5 replies »

  1. Trade war vs. get slowly poisoned to death – one hopes those aren’t our only choices, huh?

    As I think my ranting has made clear, I don’t see letting it continue as an option, period. At the same time, this is an incredibly important moment for diplomacy. A trade dust-up would be a disaster, and we can’t lose sight of the fact that China seems to hold a disturbing amount of US debt. That’s not a bear that needs poking if it can be avoided, and the Chinese temperament isn’t going to respond well to being called out in public.

    All of which points to the need for effective back-channel negotiation. Sadly, our president is the same guy who nominated the Soup Nazi’s bastard uncle to head up the UN. Not promising.

  2. One would think that countries who want to trade with us have to obey OUR rules for food safety. Evidently that isn’t the case, or we can’t regulate (or won’t) or our own desire for cheap everything will lead us off the cliff like lemmings.

    I think there are geo-political motives behind this as well as economic ones. What I’d like to know is if the Chinese are selling the same melamine laced crap to the European union, the rest of Asia, et. al. If not, we know one thing; if so, we know another. Some clarification of the motives for this would be helpful.

  3. Before we go all “trade war” can we try “labelling” – I’m fairly sure there could be a huge opportunity for some lab to offer to label food for companies as compliant with regulations. If you don’t trust your own regulator then get a private sector one; one you can slam with lawsuits if they get it wrong.

    And that is a real market response to the problem, rather than a political one (since you can always round-trip banned goods through a third-party country – just ask South Africans about sanctions busting).