House Investigators: The Chinese Government Can't Protect Its Own Citizens, Let Alone Ours

Investigators from the House Energy and Commerce Committee spent two weeks snooping around China and probably haven’t eaten since. Their investigation revealed a tattered regulatory framework, unable to protect Chinese citizens, let alone foreigners. Among the disturbing facts uncovered:

  • China’s food system is fueled by hundreds of millions of private farms, “many no larger than a basketball court.” These small private farms are often their proprietor’s sole source of income; productivity is valued over safety.
  • China’s General Administration of Quality, Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (GAQSIQ) is responsible for export quality control, but most supervision is left to local officials. Of course, “some voiced the opinion that some corruption was evident at the local level.”
  • “If the Chinese system worked as described, it would be a closed and therefore safe system. Committee staff, however, did not find an American or other multinational executive operating in China who believes that China has a competent, independent inspector stationed at each of the 3,700 plants that, according to Chinese officials, are fully HACCP-controlled. Committee staff also was unable to find anyone who believed that every single lot was sampled. It is further believed that the export certificates are subject to counterfeiting.”

And this is the good news. The inspectors originally wanted to visit the two plants responsible for the melamine wheat gluten contamination. In response, the Chinese delayed the investigators’ visas. By the time the investigators arrived on site, one plant had been bulldozed. The other was chained-off, its records held by the local police, and thus, confidential.

The team looked to Hong Kong and Japan for regulatory inspiration. In Hong Kong, the government extensively tests food samples and sends inspectors to foreign plants that export high-risk goods. In Japan, 15% of food imports are inspected, but those imports are only accepted from a small number of plants that are inspected annually by the Japanese. The downside to both models is cost, both to the government and to consumers, who pay a premium for quality imported goods.

The investigators believe that an inspection regime backed by adequate resources can improve the safety of our own food supply chain:

The United States, however, needs to sample enough so that detection becomes a deterrent. This will require some multiplying of our current efforts. It will also necessitate significantly more laboratory capacity for FDA.

The Administration has adamantly declared that it is impossible to inspect our way to safety, and wants to instead put faith in robots and science. The report sets up a confrontation between the Administration’s food safety working group and the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The battle lines will become clearer on Thursday when the Committee holds the first in a series of hearings to further discuss the investigator’s conclusions.

Food from China: Can We Import Safely? (pdf) [House Energy and Commerce Committee]
(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

Comments

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  1. Trai_Dep says:

    Notice how anything that affects people’s health (global warming, consumer safety, not eating rat poison or drinking antifreeze), the Republicans always try forcing pie-in-the-sky “solutions” that have the effect of delaying the saving of lives?

  2. emona says:

    The downside to both models is cost, both to the government and to consumers, who pay a premium for quality imported goods.

    Stick in an ‘inspected’ section at the grocery that costs more per item, guaranteed not to send you to your grave. I’d buy it!

  3. doctor_cos wants you to remain calm says:

    @trai_dep: As much as I would like to agree with that Republican put-down, the other ‘party’ through their inaction when it counts it just as guilty.
    It doesn’t matter, we’ll all be dead (except Tom Cruise) when Xenu attacks.

  4. hubris says:

    The problem being that Americans will do anything they can to not spend more money. Look at Wal-Mart; that place is a damned pit, and yet people flock to it like it’s the Second Coming. If prices were raised in order to ensure we wouldn’t all die, people would bitch and moan about that. The Darwinist in me thinks maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

  5. MyCokesBiggerThanYours says:

    Heh. Why would anyone think they were up to US standards!? ITs a freakin communist/socaialist state that kills or disappears whistle blowers.

  6. MyCokesBiggerThanYours says:

    @omerhi: The only reason why we are buying stuff manufactured in China is because Americans want to damn much money for labor. All this “living wage” nonsense and raises without increasing productivity.

  7. toxictv says:

    @MYCOKESBIGGERTHANYOURS: Yes, we want a lot for our labor. Prices in America are steadily on the rise, and wages are not rising to accomodate. Contractors are being undersold, businesses are going bankrupt, and the housing market is trashed until at LEAST this time next year.

    I don’t know about you, but I barely scrape by with what I get paid. I work for a Utility Coop in the Electrical department, and we don’t get paid peanuts, but everything is so damn expensive.

  8. Dont Know Me? You Are Me. says:

    @MyCokesBiggerThanYours: I think you mean totalitarian/authoritarian state. There is nothing communist/socialist about China that isn’t a facade.

  9. Anonymous says:

    @MyCokesBiggerThanYours: So I suppose you want us to switch to the Chinese standard of living?

  10. hoo_foot says:

    @MyCokesBiggerThanYours: This problem isn’t entirely about higher wages. The problem is that corporations don’t want to pay the exorbitant amounts of money required to give their employees health insurance. If you’re looking for someone to blame, blame our government for allowing the insurance industry to grow out of control and not properly providing its citizens with adequate health care. The US would offer a more competitive manufacturing environment if companies weren’t required to sink most of their profits into insurance (see General Motors as an example).

  11. Roundonbothends says:

    So we are more highly paid. Am I missing something? Aren’t we more productive as a whole, too?

  12. superbmtsub says:

    Considering the fact that the Chinese eat anything that moves, they’re most likely to be immune to toxic compounds.

  13. Razzler says:

    @trai_dep:

    Oh, please don’t turn this into a partisan issue. Both parties have proven themselves equally useless when it comes to the Poison Train.

  14. thedannimonster says:

    I’m sorry. Maybe I didn’t read this closely enough, but I just had a wtf moment when I read this:

    “China’s food system is fueled by hundreds of millions of private farms, “many no larger than a basketball court.” These small private farms are often their proprietor’s sole source of income; productivity is valued over safety.”

    I think this paragraph is totally out of context and needs more explanation. I understand the other problems mentioned but, without explanation, I do not see any problem with this. Is there something wrong with private farms? I know that around 90% of agriculture in the United States is now controlled by private and family run corporations ([www.cals.ncsu.edu]). Are they a harassment to our health and well-being? On the other hand, about 90% of cattle grazing is controlled by corporations, thank you Conagra and McDonald’s and E.Coli contamination.

    To me it would seem that a small private farm would stand to lose much more due to an outbreak than would a major corporation. Issue with a product at a small private farm = loss of family means of living, major corporation = small temporary loss in stock with a much more widespread contamination.

    I just take extreme exception to this statement without it being further explained. What do they mean that small private farms are a risk to well-being? Is that an equal attack on small American farmers? If I’m correct, isn’t the head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee appointed by George W. Bush, and is a staunch corporate lackey (I haven’t researched this personally, but here is his voting record for those who wish to: [projects.washingtonpost.com])

    Basically, I just find this statement exceptional and would like more context to the report and situation. I love this website, but seeing things like this posted make me raise serious questions. Even if my base assumption from reading this statement is wrong, I would like to see more context and investigative reporting before posting such an incendiary blog.

  15. thedannimonster says:

    To add to the last comment (sorry). I’m just questioning the statement that was made, as is. I mean, what the hell is wrong with small private farms? Not having major corporations run farming now constitutes a major health crisis? I’m sorry for those who wish to make a livelihood by owning their own land and farming it. The statement, at least as it was made above, just seems really strange to me.

  16. ancientsociety says:

    @thedannimonster: Totally agreed.

    We’ve seen that the large multinational-controlled farms and CAFOs here in the US have just as much (if not more) food safety issues.

    Leave it to the gov’t to label small, independent businesses as “bad”.

  17. erockO says:

    looks like she’s removing pet hair from the workers. now that’s QC!

  18. CyGuy says:

    “China’s General Administration of Quality, Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (GAQSIQ) is responsible for export quality control,”

    GAQSIQ? Pronounced Gack! Sick!

  19. obbie says:

    @Cy Guy:
    nice

  20. Bruce says:

    @thedannimonster:
    It’s all a matter or proportion. The smaller the farm, the more of an impact something has if it affects the crop yield. If a farm is only as big as a basketball court, it is critical to sell every possible plant that the land can produce. If a portion of the crop is damaged and technically unusable, you bet the farmer will try and pass off the bad crop mixed in with the good because the odds are in his favor that he will not get caught.

    If enough of the hundreds of millions of small farms did this, the overall quality of the entire season’s harvest is affected.

    Once I went to a Chinese all you can eat resturant with some friends. We were waiting for our party to be called and we observed an old chinese woman come out from the kitchen with an old, stained dirty rag. She was wiping down the steam tables, between the buffet trays of food. Instead of wiping away and disposing of the dropped food that had fallen off the serving spoons, she was flicking it back into the buffet trays so some unsuspecting customer would eat it.

    To her, that was perfectly acceptable because each morsel of uneaten food represented lost income to her and she probably didn’t take into account the sanitary aspect of what she was doing. To us, it was not sanitary at all. We got up and left and never ate there again.

  21. moorie679 says:

    A lot of people seem to blame corporations or china… instead of taking responsibility for themselves… if you are concerned about Chinese goods then do not buy them. Go to your local farm market and get homegrown stuff, make your own toys
    (all i had growing up was a top, a kite and a friggin slingshot that my grandfather made me) etc etc. You cannot have a cheap high quality product, it just wont happen.

    People dont expect to live forever and stop being afraid of everything, people lived for 40-50 years in the past…

  22. moorie679 says:

    Forgot to add… since a couple people bordered this on the outsourcing issue. I used to work for a US tire manufacturer and guess what happened on the factory floor. Workers would not show up to work, you could not take a worker from machine A to machine B because of the union contract, and we had inventory of machine A out the a$$ so that worker would just sit and smoke a pack of cigarettes for about 5 hours a day, then when it looked like it wasnt possible to meet the production quotas, people would work overtime on Sundays which paid 3x the amount and make up the difference. A bunch of silly stuff like that. A similar factory in Turkey, you either showed up to work or you were replaced, you either did what you were told or you were replaced, did unethical practices take place, you bet your ass it did. Management and Workforce needs to stop seeing each other as adversaries but it is really doubtful considering when one sides has negotiation advantage over the other they want to make em bend over.

    Also the proud American boys complaining about cost of living to justify their wages. You do not deserve more than the poor Chinese soul who ate Udon noodles and cabbage all his life. Live your life within your means, use a condom, dont have kids, cancel your subscription for 200+ channels, turn off your lights, don’t eat outside, thats what i am doing. If you really crave Kobe beef, a ford truck with shitty mpg and kids then improve yourself and get a better job.

    IT IS A LITTLE BIT OF A BS WHEN A POOR SOUL IN INDIA HAS 3 COLLEGE DEGREES AND SLEEPS OUTSIDE THE CALL OFFICES OF DELL HOPING TO GET A JOB THINKING THAT HE WILL GET IT IF HE STAYS THERE LONG ENOUGH. AND DO NOT WORRY WHEN THE CHINESE HAVE ENOUGH OF THE US PIE THEY WILL REVERT TO BUYING EU’s DEBT INSTEAD OF US’s and YOU WILL GET YOUR DREAM JOB OF MAKING STEEL OR WORKING IN A SLAUGHTER FACTORY.

    feel free to flame away……

  23. nardo218 says:

    So a small farm is bad because it’s bad? Just because factory farms are the norm in the US doesnt mean a grassroots farm system is bad, when individual farmers can profit from their own business, where the farms themselves aren’t an ecological blight, and foreign developers put the country’s entire farmers out of business causing the country to fall into debt.

    The problem isn’t small farms, it’s lack of education about and implementation of safe practices.

  24. MeOhMy says:

    This article is a real chuckler.
    *Productivity valued over saftey
    *Corruption of government officials
    *Not enough inspection, inspections not adequate

    Are we talking about China or the US?

    It sounds to me like the FDA is looking for a way to outsource themselves so they can get a bigger budget. I think the FDA needs a good housecleaning.

  25. jamar0303 says:

    @moorie679: Nitpicking, but “the poor Chinese soul who ate Udon noodles and cabbage all his life” sounds like a college student; Udon is a Japanese import that’s too impractical for the really poor but just cheap enough for college students, like ramen. And as for cabbage…

    But anyway, speaking as a Chinese resident, this is why I don’t really like buying local food. I try to get imported stuff whenever possible. Of course, that’s sometimes impractical, so sometimes I but local produce and worry about the consequences later (like in the middle of the night sitting on the toilet).

  26. ancientsociety says:

    @Bruce: I do agree that it is a “matter of proportion” when it comes to smaller vs. larger farms HOWEVER a small farm has the advantage of

    a)affecting less people if the food it puts out is contaminated. Remember the spinach debacle this summer? That affected thousands of people and it all came from one farm/area

    b)a smaller farm is much more likely to plant a polyculture of crops, so if one crop is damaged/contaminated/etc., the farmer has other crops to fall back on

    c)a smaller farm is much more likely to be concerned about the quality of its produce, mostly because it could not absorb the financial pitfall if it harmed its source of income – consumers

  27. @thedannimonster: “Is there something wrong with private farms? I know that around 90% of agriculture in the United States is now controlled by private and family run corporations. Are they a harassment to our health and well-being?”

    As mentioned above, at the size of a basketball court, the only way you’re going to get enough food or money-from-selling-food to live from your farm is if you seriously abuse and degrade the fields and environment.

    Secondly, in the US, use of agricultural chemicals is TIGHTLY controlled (we do have problems with a) some chemicals in use that ought not be for safety reasons and b) ultra-high dosages allowed, particularly for fertilizer, but on a worldwide scale, these are “minor” problems). When you buy a pesticide, say, in the U.S., the label is binding on you. If you use it for any reason or in any fashion or dosage OTHER than what’s stated on the label, you can be sued by private citizens and fined by the government. Your crops may become unsalable (Purina doesn’t want the lawsuit for buying the corn you “accidentally” used too much pesticide on).

    There’s a TON of education on agricultural chemicals available in the U.S.; many of the “good” ones require certification or training EVEN FOR PRIVATE USE; and we have a nationwide, well-respected, heavily-used county-by-county system of providing the latest scientific data on agricultural practices of all sorts to farmers.

    Many corporations — both those who only make ag chemicals and those who make “systems” (like where you get the GM corn, the fertilizer, the pesticide, etc., all from one place) — provide training for farmers, because they want them to buy their stuff, and chemical use and safety is a BIG DEAL in American ag.

    And even if YOU are a lazy shithead misusing chemicals, your neighbors are going to turn you in, because they don’t want your shit on their land, and chemicals drift. (There are tons of lawsuits in ag country every year about chemical drift.)

    These safety measures simply aren’t in place in China. You could go to any family farm in the U.S. and, if you don’t mind the legal pesticides (some of which are pretty toxic to humans), eat something right from the field and feel good that it’s been grown in line with government safety standards. There’s excellent education and training widely available, and the penalties for “cheating” are just so high that it isn’t worth it. In China, you simply won’t know what you’re getting at that farm. The farmer might be fertilizing his fields with “night soil” or uncured manure, or illegal chemicals. Or he might be following every best practice his American counterpart does, but the chemicals he buys is from a company that isn’t well-regulated (multi-billion-dollar NYSE-listed American ag chemical companies are heavily regulated and, again, the penalties for cheating are simply too high). There is no legal system that guarantees recourse against either individual farms or against farm suppliers who “cheat.”

    US agriculture has a ground-up system of safety standards that are widely accepted by all players in the community and pours literally millions of dollars into agricultural education. Buy-in is nearly total. You could add or remove inspectors at any level of the system, and you would continue to see the same practices carry on regardless.

    That simply isn’t true in China. The only standards available are really inspections of finished product, and that’s a poor way to ensure food safety (as we’ve learned), if only because it’s prohibitively expensive to inspect ALL food product.

    (I apologize for the novel. I’m on my county agriculture committee. I do a lot of this crap now. :) )

  28. @ancientsociety: “a smaller farm is much more likely to plant a polyculture of crops”

    At the size of a basketball court, this isn’t possible in any meaningful sense.

    “a smaller farm is much more likely to be concerned about the quality of its produce”

    Again, at the size of a basketball court, you’re much more concerned with maximizing calorie output. Even in excellent soil, you’d be hard-pressed to subsistence farm on a farm that size.

    A small farm IN THE US is more likely to be polycultural and concerned about quality, but a small farm in the US is 40 acres.

  29. Hinomura says:

    @SUPERBMTSUB: HAHAHAHA I’m asian and yeah it’s true, if it moves (hell even if it doesn’t move) we’ll eat it.

    @eyebrows mcgee: damn straight son you hit the nail on the head.

  30. ancientsociety says:

    @Eyebrows McGee:

    “At the size of a basketball court, this isn’t possible in any meaningful sense.”

    Really? I guess you’ve never heard of Square Foot Gardening, huh?
    [www.squarefootgardening.com]

    “A small farm IN THE US is more likely to be polycultural and concerned about quality, but a small farm in the US is 40 acres”

    Maybe a small CONVENTIONAL farm is 40 acres, but organic “microfarms” have proved to be ploycultural and cost-efficient.
    [tinyfarmblog.com]
    [www.microfarmsustainable.org]

  31. MeOhMy says:

    @ancientsociety: Regardless, I think it’s a safe assumption that the average basketball-court-sized farm in China that is being used “as the proprieter’s sole source of income” is probably not using many sustainable techniques.

  32. “I guess you’ve never heard of Square Foot Gardening, huh?”

    I actually do Square Foot Gardening in my backyard, and it serves as a local demonstration garden to assist in educating others on how to do it.

    HOWEVER, if your ENTIRE farm is the size of a B’Ball court AND you are attempting to BOTH feed yourself AND sell market produce, you’re not going to be square-foot gardening. You’re most likely going to be growing closely-packed high-yield grains and striving for a subsistence level of calories.

    I think you’ve missed a large point here in that a farm the size of a basketball field is not adequate to feed a family year ’round AND provide market produce. Most “micro” polycultural organic farms do not provide all sustenance for their farmers year-round. There is an enormous difference between being a market farmer and a subsistence farmer hoping to grow some extra calories for market.