Chinese Poison Train Defeats FDA, The Prequel

Ten years ago, the FDA tried and failed to identify the driver of the deadly Chinese Poison Train. The investigation started when diethylene glycol produced by a state-owned company was mixed into fever medicine, killing 88 Haitian children.

The F.D.A.’s efforts to investigate the Haiti poisonings, documented in internal F.D.A. memorandums obtained by The New York Times, demonstrate not only the intransigence of Chinese officials, but also the same regulatory failings that allowed a virtually identical poisoning to occur 10 years later. The cases further illustrate what happens when nations fail to police the global pipeline of pharmaceutical ingredients.

The Chinese Poison Train hides behind a veil of secrecy and lies, after the jump…

(Photo: harryalverson)

FDA agents examining the Haitian deaths traced the poison to a German broker. The broker had been supplied by a Dutch company, which sold 72 barrels of poison to Haiti; when FDA agents arrived, they found an additional 66 barrels of diethylene glycol labeled as glycerine. The barrels had been purchased from Sinochem, a Chinese exporter owned by the state. Sinochem refused to identify its supplier.

After months of trying, the U.S. embassy successfully badgered the Chinese into releasing a phone number for the supplier, the Tianhong Fine Chemicals Factory. The FDA tried to call, but the Chinese factory, employing the tactics of a fifth grader dodging a call to his parents from the school principal, kept saying that the factory manager was unavailable. When finally reached for comment, the manager would only say that “there had been no cases in China of poisoning resulting from the ingestion.” Last year, 18 Chinese citizens died after consuming medicine tainted with diethylene glycol.

The FDA went back to Sinochem and had the following discussion:
Sinochem: We have two certificates showing that the barrels were safe.
FDA: May we see them?
Sinochem: No.
FDA: Please?
Sinochem: This conversation is over.

The FDA clearly understood the threat posed by diethylene glycol. FDA Deputy Commissioner Mary Pendergast presciently warned back in 1997: “The U.S. imports a lot of Chinese glycerin and it is used in ingested products such as toothpaste.”

The Chinese Poison Train is still out there, lurking on a container ship headed our way. Nobody knows when it will strike again. — CAREY GREENBERG-BERGER

F.D.A. Tracked Tainted Drugs, but Trail Went Cold in China [NYT]


Edit Your Comment

  1. Trai_Dep says:

    Um, nit-picky, but that’s a Japanese train… :)

  2. nonsequiturmine says:

    Actually it’s Korean, the characters on the train give it away.

  3. sncreducer says:

    Not to nitpick some more, but…

    It seems a little iffy to me that Consumerist summarizes NYT’s story, using their research and reporting to generate page views and click-thrus for Gawker Media, but then links to a printable version of the NYT story, thus depriving NYT of those same benefits.

    I know that registration is usually required to view NYT pages, but it’s free, and there’s nothing preventing you from setting up a phony free-mail account to use for those types of registrations to avoid being spammed.

    I work at a newspaper, and while many are doing a lousy job of learning to monetize their online presence, I think if Gawker is reaping the benefits of the newspaper’s work, they should at least be sharing the reader wealth.

  4. huadpe says:

    @sncreducer: Yes and no. The New York Times splashes an ad page before about 5% of pageviews (even for the paid online subscribers). I got one of those on this article.

  5. catnapped says:

    FDA is in big-business’ back pocket (much like most every gov’t agency). No real surprises here.

    People die–profits soar…name of the game today

  6. sporesdeezeez says:

    I, for one, am grateful to see this story, regardless of how it linked back to NYT (but then again, I read The Week, so I already have demonstrated a preference for news regurgitated).

    It is increasingly clear that the failures of food and drug supply regulation with respect to China are not rooted in shiftless bureaucrats at FDA, but rather a Congress which will not / cannot make FDA a budgetary and political priority – at least when a “most favored nation” is involved. Here we see clearly the FDA had grave concerns, but they fell on deaf ears.

    That, to me, is an important piece of information when it comes to deciding what kind of solution I should endorse as a voter.

  7. SmartCookie says:

    This situation in China is a good example of what happens when you remove the “reg-you-lay-shuns” that are supposedly strangling our free-market economy.

  8. Balentius says:

    “The cases further illustrate what happens when nations fail to police the global pipeline of pharmaceutical ingredients.”

    Yeah, gosh darn it! The nerve of the US, not going into another country and shutting down their businesses… Oh, wait, their government might object to that.

    There is a much simpler answer here – the same one that is already being used in the pet food case – STOP BUYING FROM THAT COMPANY!!! If the toothpaste, cat food or whatever doesn’t sell, the corporation will figure out pretty darn quickly that they should use a different supplier. The FDA is never going to be able to keep up with the flood of products being introduced. Unless we want to switch over to the same process used for new drug sales, then we just have to pay attention to what these companies are doing, and stick with brands that use local ingredients.

    For years, companies have been getting ingredients from other countries, knowing that they have less regulations on accurate labelling, as well as many other problems. Now is the time to “thank” them properly…

  9. shdwsclan says:

    The words….chinese high speed levitation train only spell disaster….especially if they are in the same sentence…

  10. Buran says:

    @sncreducer: So people bitch about being linked to a less annoying version of a page …

    I guess you really want to bitch. You’d probably have bitched if you’d been linked to a page full of flashing wiggling spinning beeping text-covering BS.

  11. sncreducer says:

    @Buran: Wow, dude. That’s a lot of bitter in a very brief comment.

    Like I said in my original comment, my problem is that Gawker/Consumerist is reaping the benefits of NYT’s original research and reporting without giving them the same opportunity. Page views (especially those on pages with embedded advertising) = $$$. By linking to the printable page instead of the original article page, Consumerist is actively reducing the number of original page views and potential click-thrus that NYT can capitalize on. So Gawker gets to make money from reporting they had nothing to do with, and NYT’s profit potential on the work they actually did is reduced.

    The reality is that Consumerist doesn’t have the resources to do the kind of investigation that NYT has done.

    Let’s see how much you bitch when great newspapers like the NYT are rendered unprofitable and you’re left to rely on Consumerist to generate original news reporting. Somehow I don’t see Ben Popken jumping on a plane to China to track down obscure paperwork and try to force interviews with reticent Chinese food and safety officials.